Writing on Power Line about recent events in Minnesota, I noted that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is easily one of the worst books I have ever read; the book had been cited by one of Governor Walz’s gurus on race. Alexander’s book is as bad as it is influential. It’s funny how that goes.
Although Alexander’s book is a close competitor for the distinction, the worst book I have ever read is Ta-Nehesi Coates’s incredibly successful memoir cum manifesto, Between the World and Me. Dreadful as it is, Coates’s book remained at the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for weeks and won the National Book Award for nonfiction. I made my case against Coates’s book in the City Journal review “An updated racial hustle.”
Culture matters, and Coates’s book has polluted the culture, yet it has been hailed as a brilliant contribution. New Yorker editor David Remnick, for example, welcomed Coates and his book in Remnick’s fawning podcast with Coates. (“You are a writer with a capital W,” Remnick told Coates.) In his capacity as editor of the New Yorker, Remnick closed a loop of sorts here.
Coates 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 for Commentary 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.
Upon its publication in the New Yorker 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 his superb memoir Making It as well as in his 2013 Commentary essay looking back in “‘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 do not fancy myself Norman Podhoretz, but I had him in the back of my mind while suffering through Coates’s book. His opinion regarding my piece on Coates was the one I cared about. Closing the loop in my own way, I sent the edited draft to him in 2015 just before City Journal posted it. He took a look and graciously 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.”
I also had City Journal in mind while working through Coates’s book. Coates rehearses many of the themes that City Journal has heroically resisted over the years. I was most grateful to the editors for their hospitality to my piece on Coates.