Merrill House writer Nicholas Boggs discusses his work on James Baldwin
Without disparaging the obvious importance of children's literature, it's accurate to say that not many would-be James Merrill House writers-in-residence jot down "KID'S BOOK" on their applications.
Nicholas Boggs, January's Merrill House author, didn't actually write a children's book. What he did do, in context, was oversee and co-edit, along with Jennifer DeVere Brody, the republication of the late James Baldwin's "Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood" — a largely forgotten and long out-of-print book about the challenges and joys of a Black child growing up in 1920s Harlem.
Baldwin, of course, was the visionary Black author whose works also include groundbreaking titles like "Go Tell It On the Mountain," "Notes of a Native Son," "If Beale Street Could Talk" and "The Fire Next Time." And the republication of "Little Man, Little Man," which Baldwin regarded as a "child's book for adults," is an important rediscovery in a developing literary renaissance for writers of color. But Baldwin particularly resonates now. He grew up in Harlem and left the U.S. for France in 1972 at the age of 24 to escape racial and sexual bigotry and establish life as a writer. These issues are integral at a time when the ongoing fight of civil rights groups such as the Black Lives Matter movement are particularly committed and active.
For Boggs's part, his efforts on behalf of "Little Man, Little Man," which includes the vitally evocative original illustrations by Yoran Cazac, was incredibly fulfilling. First of all, Baldwin has been his favorite author, going back to Boggs' public school days in Washington, D.C. It's also true that, when Boggs chose "Little Man, Little Man" as the subject for his senior thesis as a Yale undergrad, he essentially launched an entire career.
After earning an MFA in creative writing from American University and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, Boggs became a professor of English at New York University. He's the recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships, and his writings on Baldwin have been included in "James Baldwin Now" as well as "The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin." Last year, he signed a contract with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to write a literary biography called "James Baldwin: In the Full Light," and he is at work on the manuscript during his Merrill residency.
On Saturday, Boggs will read from the new book and discuss Baldwin and his legacy with old friend Nicole Terez Dutton, the Cave Canem Prize-winning poet and editor of the Kenyon Review. Earlier this week, by email, Boggs talked about his work and why he can always count on excellent cheese to go with the wine at literary receptions. Comments have been edited for space and clarity.
Q. When you were searching for a thesis topic at Yale, were you aware of "Little Man, Little Man," and how did you learn more about it?
A. I was taking a class on Baldwin, and the professor mentioned there was an out-of-print children's book by Baldwin housed at (Yale's) Beinecke (Rare Books & Manuscripts Library), so I went to check it out. I was fascinated by the backstory and its status as a literary work. Baldwin actually called it a "child's story for adults," and it was written entirely in what he called and celebrated as "Black English," a rarity for children's literature.
Q. Later, you actually spoke with Yoran Cazac, the illustrator of the book's incredible and empathetic illustrations.
A. A few years (after writing the thesis), I tracked him down in Paris, which led to republishing the book and, eventually, the biography I'm working on now. In a way, it all felt very random. But in another way, it felt a bit like it was all destined to happen. Finding the book led to more discovering, more people who knew Baldwin, and more places to visit and explore where he lived in the south of France, Istanbul, and Corsica.
Q. Though way overdue, in the past few years, there has been increased attention on and opportunities for writers of color and other under-represented authors. As you advanced through your work and schooling, was it in fact difficult to find source material for research or even professionals to speak with?
A. That's an interesting question, though I've always been fortunate to have mentors who supported my interest in Baldwin. I was also fortunate that a revival of Baldwin took place at the exact moment when I discovered "Little Man, Little Man." In fact, my senior thesis was published in the NYU anthology "James Baldwin Now" way back in 1999. That was edited by Dwight McBride, a leading scholor of African American Studies who is now president of The New School. Also, Jennifer DeVere Brody, my co-editor of "Little Man, Little Man," encouraged and supported my work. Both of them helped spark the revival of Baldwin in academia, which eventually expanded into the broader culture. Now I try to pass along this support to my own students.
(As far as the publishing industry is concerned), it is undergoing some major and long overdue changes around race. But there has long been a strong and brilliant history of scholars of African American literature — not just around Baldwin's work — and we all benefit from the archives and books it has produced.
Q. The rising tide of police shootings of Black citizens, in conjunction with long-simmering injustices and the controversies of the Trump presidency, have provided the impetus and momentum for the BLM movement and an awakening in curiosity about Black artists in a variety of mediums. In your work as a professor, editor and now biographer, have you been able to observe and quantify this interest, particularly as it applies to Baldwin?
A. Yes. Baldwin has been a key figure in recent discussions about race and white supremacy. It's interesting that when Robert Kennedy told him in the early 1960s that in his lifetime there could well be a Black president of the United States, Baldwin shot back that he was less concerned about when there would be a first Black president than what kind of country this hypothetical person would be president of. Of course, it turned out to be the same country that, in a backlash after Obama, would next elect Trump, who has reignited and incited violence, discord, and is now attempting a coup. Baldwin knew the deep roots of white supremacy, which is part of why his work and words resonate so deeply today. Eddie Glaude's recent book, "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own," is essential reading in this regard.
Q. Is it hard to settle into a residency and be immediately productive? In particular, James Merrill's house is exotic and intriguing, so I wonder if the Merrill Board can realistically expect their writers-in-residence to get any work done. The same concerns would apply to the distracting surroundings of Stonington Borough.
A. It's true the bookshelves can be distracting, but they are also very inspiring! I was supposed to come last April but the pandemic hit so I'm grateful to the James Merrill House for having me come now. It's especially meaningful because Baldwin's former personal secretary and the author of a truly incredible Baldwin biography, David Leeming, and his wife Pam, live in Stonington Borough. They knew Baldwin very well, and David's book, much of which he wrote here in Stonington, utterly changed my life — so I feel particularly lucky to be here and spend some time with them, too. Safely and outdoors, of course!
Q. You've said Connecticut feels like your second home. You went to Yale, and your family has a longtime business in the Colchester area. What's important here is that the family business, Cato Corner Farm, is responsible for making some excellent cheeses. In the pre-pandemic days, would you insist — or perhaps provide — Cato Corner Farm offerings for the requisite, authorial wine and cheese receptions?
A. Cato Corner cheese was what we used, of course, for many of the launch events for "Little Man, Little Man," and, as always, it was a big hit! And I brought some here to share with the residency coordinator and some Merrill House board members — only to realize it's sold at the farmer's market here. They still accepted it, of course.
To see and hear
Who: James Merrill House January writer-in-residence Nicholas Boggs
What: Reads from and discusses his biography-in-progress on James Baldwin; virtual event with Kenyon Review editor Nicole Terez Dutton
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
How much: Free
How to watch: Live on James Merrill House Facebook or YouTube pages
For more information: jamesmerrillhouse.org