Ta-Nehesi Coates was awarded the National Book Award (non-fiction) for Between the World and Me on Wednesday night. It is an utterly abominable book. I wrote about it in the City Journal column “An updated racial hustle.” Christopher Caldwell nailed it in the Weekly Standard. Anthony Daniels administered justice to it in the New Criterion. Most recently, Bill Voegeli took a learned whack at it in the Claremont Review of Books.
This is an extraordinarily ugly moment in our history. In Coates and his book the man has met the moment. Coates says he has been waiting for this moment for 15 years; he’s a young man. His book harks back to all the worst racial tropes of the ’60s. The book vividly reminds me of Eric Hoffer’s concise estimate of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968): “Soul on horse manure.”
Coates has much to be modest about, but he is not a modest man. He fancies himself the second coming of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.
As the editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz had commissioned the long closing essay in The Fire Next Time and Baldwin had taken him up on it. After writing the essay, however, Baldwin gave it to the New Yorker for a fee about 20 times what Commentary would have paid him.
Baldwin’s essay made a major splash. Podhoretz felt betrayed by Baldwin and let Baldwin know it. His furious conversation with Baldwin led to Podhoretz’s famous essay responding to Baldwin, “My Negro Problem–and Ours,” published in Commentary in February 1963.
Podhoretz tells the story in the closing pages of Making It as well as in his 2013 retrospective “‘My Negro Problem–and Ours’ at 50.” Not surprisingly, with his unsurpassed editorial eye, Podhoretz plucked Coates from the current scene to make a cameo appearance in his retrospective essay.
I sent the edited draft of my piece on Coates to Mr. Podhoretz to ask for his comments. He responded by email: “I hadn’t realized from the reviews how badly written the book is. Jimmy Baldwin at his worst (i.e., in the last years of his life) never came close to writing such gibberish, and at his best he was many literary miles beyond the reach of Coates. Evidently Toni Morrison [in her endorsement on the back of the dust jacket] can’t tell the difference, but the Baldwin I knew would have been insulted by the comparison to him.”