[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr]
Leak, Jeffrey B. Visible man: The Life of Henry Dumas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.
He was brilliant. He was troubled. He was dead at the age of 34. Like many males of his class and generation, he was a death-bound-subject, a player in the game regulated by the racial contract of the United States of America. “While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960’s –Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights—,” according to the in-house promotional statement from the University of Georgia Press,” his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions” (University of Georgia Press Spring/Summer 2014 catalogue, 6). The 1960’s, a transformative decade in our history, was also pregnant with other movements not begat by black Americans, and that fact is unavoidable in constructing a biography of Henry Dumas (1934-1968).
In “Confessions of a Burned-Out Biographer” (The Seductions of Biography. Ed. Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996), Phyllis Rose reminds us that “the school of literary biography, whether or not the subject is a literary figure, tends to see all facts as artifacts and to see context and argument as co-partners of fact” (131). The public, Rose claims, prefers “objective biography” to the artistry of literary biography. Jeffrey B. Leak seems to have embraced the alleged preferences of the public sphere in writing Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.
Leak’s signifying on the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece in his own title is a signal, a red flag: subject to the biography of Henry Dumas to very critical “close reading.” Doing so yields a discovery. When a literary figure is encased in “object biography,” the subject becomes overwhelmingly visible, but the sterling values of the subject’s contribution to the republic of American letters become muted or downright invisible.
My response to Leak’s Visible Man is ambivalent. I am sensitive to Leak’s frustration that many crucial documents of fact are beyond recovery at present or were destroyed. I respect his fidelity to academic rigor and constraints of objectivity. I am critical of an effort he did not make in writing the biography. Unlike Margaret Walker who dared to take risks in her biography of Richard Wright, Leak hesitates to explore the genuinely literary expression of Dumas’s daemonic genius. The creative torment which manifested itself in his “giving the Black Experience a core and a basic set of symbols/myths that connect it to the original labyrinth of African thought,” as Eugene B. Redmond, Dumas’s literary executive, argued in introductory remarks for Rope of Wind and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1979) is the location of Dumas’s primal value for contemporary readers. If one substitutes “black experiences” for “the Black Experience,” the value rises. So too does the necessity of enfolding substantive literary analysis with quantitative contextual analysis of life history. Leak does use references to literary works to buttress and illustrate key points about the life journey. He does not bring into full view the aesthetic features of Dumas’s poetry and prose that could validate our claiming (or seeing why) Dumas was one of America’s most extraordinarily gifted writer and thinkers, a fit companion for such troubled geniuses as John Coltrane, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, and Cecil Taylor.
How can one bid a new generation of readers to rediscover Henry Dumas without weaving literary analysis of his works, of his uncanny innovations and imagination, with the chronological threads of his life? Especially if one likens Dumas to Countee Cullen and frames his life and art in the ambience of mystery. Despite the praise in blurbs from Keith Gilyard and Yusef Komunyakaa, Visible Man is troubling in this regard. Leak’s treatment of Dumas’s marriage and extra-marital adventures —artifacts begging for integration with the facts of art —-is problematic. What leaks from the book is a subjective correlative with the portrayal of Cross Damon and Eva Blount in The Outsider. This draws attention to one of the qualified witnesses for Dumas, namely the equally gifted poet Jay Wright. Wright’s 1969 introduction for Poetry for My People (retitled Play Ebony, Play Ivory for the Random House edition) is evidence of his unique insights about Dumas’s poetics. Wright exercised ethical prudence is not giving Leak an extensive interview about Dumas. His silence in 2014 must be accounted an act of integrity and love, one that is rare in a time that has zero tolerance for privacy.
To be sure, we must respect Leak’s scholarship in reaching into an ark of bones and bringing forth a skeleton upon which one can paste fragments of skin. It would be ungenerous to minimize Leak’s achievement. Nevertheless, literary history demands a supplemental study of Dumas’s art. Leak concludes that “in a sense, the mainstream literary world is finally catching up with this most visible man” (166). The statement is premature. Imprisoned by its habits of benign neglect the so-called American mainstream will only botch the job of catching up. On the contrary, it is a critical consciousness of world literature that must reclaim Henry Dumas and pay appropriate tribute.