Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun

Holt. Jan. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9781250205537. $29.99. BIOG
If the Black American playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930–65) had not died young, one wonders what other contributions she could have made to 20th-century American literature. Shields (author of biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut) writes an excellent account of Hansberry’s life, drawing from his own interviews with Hansberry’s friends and family and from correspondence and diaries found in the Hansberry Papers repository at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, among other sources. Born into an entrepreneurial family who found success building kitchenettes in Chicago, Hansberry embraced leftist causes in college and wrote for Marxist newspapers. She was not out as a lesbian and struggled with depression, Shields writes. He also discusses Hansberry’s influences and interactions with other writers and activists (James Baldwin, Alice Childress, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson). Shields provides interesting background describing the Chicago and New York Hansberry would have known. His account of the development and marketing of A Raisin in the Sun is particularly noteworthy. Shields also reveals the name of a patron who helped fund the play’s production; until this biography, he had remained anonymous.
VERDICT This biography substantiates Hansberry’s accomplishments, despite her short life. Recommended for all Hansberry enthusiasts and 20th-century literary scholars.
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