I asked West whether he believed Union would finally give him something like the quiet fulfillment his marital life has so far failed to provide. “Last month I did seventeen lectures,” he conceded. “That’s too much for a brother almost 60 years old. At the same time, if I’m able to touch a whole lot of lives and get them to rethink, organize, mobilize, is that better than sitting in the library and writing a magnum opus twelve years from now? That’s an open question. That’s an open question, it really is.”
West and Cone did a Q&A at a Princeton bookstore last winter, and afterward, they and a handful of friends and colleagues—including the journalist Chris Hedges, who wrote the Truthdig piece; Carl Dix, a local communist organizer; Brother Ali, an albino rapper; and a few professors—went to dinner. There, West was in his element. He had no one to provoke, and it was clear to see why some might compare West to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, or even Mark Twain. The conversation started with an appreciation of the works of novelist James Baldwin. “At Baldwin’s funeral,” said West, “I sat next to Stokely Carmichael. He’s a hard brother, and he cried like a baby.” West regarded Baldwin in the light of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Amiri Baraka, and his friend Toni Morrison. Then the conversation took a turn, touching briefly on the works of the slavery historians David Brion Davis and Leon Litwack, and the civil-rights historian Howard Zinn, before resting for a time on Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, the definers of twentieth-century Christian theology—both of whom taught at Union. About the literary critic Harold Bloom, West pronounced, “He’s not always right, but he’s always got something to say,” and then he veered straight through Martin Heidegger to praise his lesser-known disciple, Hans-Georg Gadamer.
West was performing that night for an uncritical audience, but even so, it was hard not to appreciate his mind. He famously reads for two or three hours before bed, and he has astonishing recall. Even in casual conversation, he uses “every intellectual resource at hand,” says Obery Hendricks, who is now a visiting Bible scholar at Columbia University. In private-study sessions with West at Princeton, Hendricks remembers, “He was able to seamlessly incorporate black vernacular, black music, with the deepest Western philosophical thinkers. Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I thought, What kind of mind is this? I couldn’t believe it.” West’s protégés describe seeing themselves, under the tutelage of their mentor, not as intellectual piece workers, toiling in small antechambers, but as heirs to a great, broad tradition.
“There’s pre–Cornel West, and there’s post–Cornel West,” says Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton. “I can tell you, generations of African-American intellectuals have been trained on the footnotes of Prophesy!”
In 1993, with Race Matters, West established himself beyond the academy. Race Matters was a collection of essays directed at a mainstream audience that chided America for having failed to offer anything like a prospect of success or fulfillment to its citizens of African descent. “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, and school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life,” he wrote. “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” At the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the volume for its “ferocious moral vision and astute intellect.” The next year, after a long courtship, Henry Louis Gates Jr. lured West away from Princeton to Harvard, where he was building a first-rate African-American-studies department. The hire was widely seen as a coup for Gates and for Harvard, and West became the forward of what Gates called his “dream team.” West, long a cult figure on campus, was famous.
Fame begat more fame. After Race Matters, West produced about a dozen books, half of them written with someone else. He appeared in two movies in The Matrix series; he made three hip-hop/spoken-word albums; he gained a reputation as “C-span Man”; and he worked on the political campaigns of Al Sharpton, Bill Bradley, and Ralph Nader. In 2004, he published Democracy Matters, which hit No. 11 on the Times’ best-seller list. As his popularity grew, so too did the number of critics calling West shallow and self-serving. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a sermon written in a hurry and delivered to the choir.”
In 2006, West fired his speaker’s bureau and put Smiley in charge. Smiley says his involvement in West’s career is for West’s own good, because West is too prone to donate his talents for free. “As his friend, I have to protect him and his earning potential,” says Smiley. “I am considerably younger than Dr. West, and at some point, someone’s got to take care of Zeytun, his daughter. I help him with his finances, my accountants are his accountants, my lawyers are his lawyers.” When West speaks in public, he now earns as much as $25,000, and his travel schedule is bruising. He’s on the road four days out of seven and boasts that in ten years at Princeton, he’s never spent a weekend at home. His last three books have been published by Smiley’s publishing house, and he got an assist on his 2009 memoir from Smiley’s ghost writer David Ritz.