Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Another Country: James Baldwin at ‘Home’ (and) Abroad

by Sion Dayson

“’You can take the child out of the country,’ my elders were fond of saying, ‘but you can’t take the country out of the child.’ They were speaking of their own antecedents, I supposed; it didn’t, anyway, seem possible that they could be warning me; I took myself out of the country and went to Paris. It was there that I discovered that the old folks knew what they were talking about: I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”[i]

Depending on who’s speaking and for what purpose, James Baldwin can be classified as one of the twentieth century’s best essayists and fiction writers, a fiery “black spokesman” with an agenda, or the celebrated “Negro author” of his generation. But by my lights, he was simply a great American writer.

That’s how Baldwin would have it, too. Though his work most often deals with the searing issues of race, he himself wanted to be thought of not as a black writer, but an American one. This distinction speaks not only to the limitations of being boxed in as an artist (and a human being), but also to the conception of identity – his own, and the nation’s. Race, after all, is very much an issue for all Americans, not the concern of just one group in the country.

This identification as an American arises from Baldwin’s many years as an expatriate. We see in his work and hear in his comments, that he began to define and understand both himself and America only when he left America.

The idea for Go Tell it On the Mountain, for example, his first novel which was influenced heavily by his experience growing up in Harlem and the black church, had been with him for eight years. But he was unable to write any sort of satisfactory draft. During a feverish three months of work in a small Swiss village, however, he finished it. In a strange, white Alpine setting that couldn’t have been farther from the streets of Harlem, he was able to see his home with shocking clarity. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.”[ii]

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. I was only a little girl when Baldwin died, so I speak not as someone who has any intimate knowledge of the period in which he lived and wrote. Instead I serve as proof that he continues to touch younger writers, too, despite our new concerns, the fact that the racial and social landscape looks far different than the one he confronted.

So little feels dated about Baldwin’s work, however. To read his writing now is to be as roundly astonished – by his insight, his almost prophetic observations – as when he first penned the words. That’s because he could take a precise event and transform it into a broader meditation. In the title essay of 1955’s Notes of a Native Son, for example, Baldwin turns the day of his father’s funeral into a deeper reflection on the nature of rage and hatred, an examination of the human psyche in the face of systematic injustice. And even when delving into the most difficult of subjects, Baldwin’s work pulses with a soaring love for humanity. Indeed, he’s incensed by injustice because it is contrary to humanity.

From The Fire Next Time:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace…in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.[iii]

Baldwin’s attentions, however outraged, were a form of love, his own daring quest to describe what was “really happening here,” to unravel the “myth of America.”[iv] What’s fascinating – and this brings me to the main impetus behind this essay, homage notwithstanding – is that Baldwin was so often not here, not in America. The United States – her people and her struggles – were his main preocuppations, but he wrote about them most often from a remove abroad.

Baldwin lived in Paris from 1948-1957. Even when he returned to the States for the civil rights movement in the sixties, he continued what he’d later term his “transatlantic commutes” – and what scholar Magdalena J. Zaborowska termed his “Turkish Decade,”[v] Istanbul being the site of his most productive writing during that period. And in the end, he found himself back in France, in a small village called St-Paul-de-Vence this time, for his final years. Little of his adult life, then, was actually spent in the America of which he wrote. His self-imposed exile, however, helped him become an American writer. The distance from his birthplace allowed him space to start deconstructing our myths, come to the terms with the fact that he was American. Baldwin’s evolution as a writer is intimately tied to his years living abroad. It is this journey I want to follow.

I am an American writer of color living in Paris, as Baldwin was in his day. Revisiting Baldwin’s work was an exciting way to explore more deeply questions of home, identity, and the effect a different culture has on my own work, too.

“The best thing I ever did in my life was leave America and go to Paris,” Baldwin said.[vi] Critics would agree, as his most lauded works date from his first sojourn in the City of Light. After Europe pushed him to finish the much-praised Go Tell it on the Mountain – the largely autobiographical and most disciplined of all his novels – he tackled his second one from abroad, too. Giovanni’s Room is one of my all-time favorite books, and apparently, also his favorite, too. That novel brought me to my knees when I first read it and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was set in Paris, but everything to do with its portrayal of the suffocating effects of self-hatred, repressed desire, and the denial of love. It’s the haunting tale of a homosexual relationship and its heartbreaking trajectory, written with a restrained lyricism that makes me weep.

But rereading it now, over a decade later, it becomes powerful to me in new ways. I see the notion of home as much an imagined landscape as a real place for the characters that populate the story. I see Baldwin exploring the curious loneliness and escapism of the expatriate, the expat as perhaps the most extreme example of someone trying to run away from himself – literally – and failing.

While Baldwin found a certain salvation in his exile, he also warned that “havens are high priced. The price exacted of the haven-dweller is that he contrive to delude himself into believing that he has found a haven.”[vii]

Early in Giovanni’s Room, David, the protagonist, remarks:

There is something fantastic in the spectacle I now present to myself of having run so far, so hard, across the ocean even, only to find myself brought up short once more before the bulldog in my own backyard.[viii]

The young American falls in love with Giovanni in Paris, but encounters the same struggle he knew he had back home – he cannot accept that he loves men. This self-repression has dire consequences for both Giovanni and himself, ending literally in Giovanni’s death.

Giovanni’s Room was a bold step. Not only was homosexuality still considered a crime at the time – in the US, in France where he wrote it, and in the UK where it was first published – but Baldwin willfully wrote outside of the box his publishers were trying to put him in: that of “the next big Negro writer.”

After Go Tell it On the Mountain, he was expected to continue writing about “black themes.” But as a gay man, and a writer abroad, he had additional concerns close to his heart. He did not follow up his Harlem book with another “Negro novel.” In Giovanni’s Room, all of the characters are white.

And for this, I admire him, too. For his stand that the artist is not beholden to only one subject matter. And that the black writer does not always have to write about the black experience. “I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject,” he said, “but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.”[ix]

Many critics argue that Baldwin’s strongest writing is found in his nonfiction. He himself wanted most to be thought of as a fiction writer and to make more headway with his plays. No matter what genre he was writing in, though, it was all deeply personal. His work’s passion and urgency can serve as a clarion call to all of us to find the beating heart of our work. I find this particularly interesting to investigate as a fiction writer. Yes, we can use the power of invention and imagination to “make stuff up,” but what are the obsessions and concerns driving us to tell our stories?

One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.[x]

I contend – and Baldwin has said it himself in many ways – that Paris gave him the space to see more clearly his experience, to find his material, illuminate his obsessions, and to transcend what others would attempt to saddle him with in terms of subject matter. Living in another country gave him the remove to look at America, his homeland and himself in a way he might not have been capable of accessing otherwise.

In a speech he gave at UC Berkeley in 1979, Baldwin put it this way:

At a certain time in my life when I was not in this country, but in France, where I could not speak to anybody because I spoke no French…I dropped into a silence in which I heard for the first time – really heard – and began to be able to try to deal with the beat of the language of the people who had produced me. I might have been able to do that here, but in the event, I was not able to do that here. I did it far away.[xi]

In his seminal essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” Baldwin discusses the writing of Go Tell it on the Mountain, in that aformentioned Swiss village. Without the familiar crutches of home, he reaches something profound.

I, like many a writer before me upon the discovery that his props have all been knocked out from under him, suffered a species of breakdown and was carried off to the mountains of Switzerland. There, in that absolutely alabaster landscape, armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.

It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I would not touch watermelon), but in Europe she helped to reconcile me to being a “nigger.”

I do not think that I could have made this reconciliation here. Once I was able to accept my role – as distinguished, I must say, from my “place” – in the extraordinary drama which is America, I was released from the illusion that I hated America.[xii]

By way of historical context, Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the oldest of nine children. He never knew his real father and instead grew up with his strict, religious step-father, David, a Baptist minister, and his mother, a maid. The family lived in dire poverty, barely able to keep all mouths fed. Baldwin’s sharp intellect and thirst for literature served as his escape. He is said to have read every single book in his neighborhood library, so he started visiting the Midtown Manhattan library, encountering the white world outside Harlem. Countee Cullen, the famed poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was a literary club advisor at his junior high school and Baldwin later entered the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school journal.

He spent three years as a youth minister, following in his step-father’s footsteps, though he couldn’t stand his stepfather, whom he regarded as cruel and bitter. He ended up losing the taste for ministry, questioning the church’s role, but a Biblical cadence remained in much of his work.

After graduating, he picked up odd jobs, none of which stuck. He began writing what would later be Go Tell it On the Mountain, enough to get him a grant in 1945. But in 1946 his best friend committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, an event that shook him to the core. This incident becomes crucial in a later novel he will write, Another Country.

Baldwin was asked many times over the years why he left the United States. He gives different versions of the same essential answer: he felt forced to flee. Here’s one account he gave in a Paris Review interview from 1984:

I had to get out of New York…Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody, or be killed…It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.[xiii]

France wasn’t such a random choice, though. At that time, there was a whole community of black writers living in Paris, including Chester Himes and Richard Wright, by then the most famous black author after the publication of Native Son. Wright said in a 1953 interview, “Every Negro in America carries through his life the burden of race consciousness like a corpse on his back. I shed that corpse when I stepped off the train in Paris.”[xiv]

When Baldwin was twenty, he had knocked on Wright’s door in Brooklyn and the older writer took him under his wing. So now there they were, Wright and Baldwin, meeting again, in Paris this time, both having fled in an effort to slough off racism’s “corpse.”

Baldwin was only twenty-four when he landed in Paris. He had a few solid pieces of literary criticism under his belt, but nothing resembling a career. His first big literary essay from Paris, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” criticized Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and also, interestingly, Native Son, which created a rift between Wright and him. During this period, Baldwin “saw the writer’s place as being not on the platform but at the desk”[xv] as one biographer, James Campbell, put it. All literature may be protest, but not all protest is literature.

The arc I find particularly interesting in Baldwin’s journey is that he left America to “save himself” – to him it literally was a question of life or death. But in landing in this new country, he came to identify strongly as an American and would later feel a responsibility to return to deal with what was happening in the civil rights movement. And in many ways he took to the platform, started writing in protest. He comes full circle.

I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African – they were no more at home in Europe than I was.[xvi]

 This distance, and unease even, sharpens one of a writer’s most important tools: that of careful observation and reflection. All of the essays from Notes of a Native Son – that title, you notice, echoing purposefully Wright’s novel – were written during Baldwin’s time in France. It is still considered among his best work. What struck me while reading some of the essays was his use of the word, “we.” I had to back up and reread some of the sentences as at first it sounded as if he was talking from the position of a white man at times.

Take this line, for example, from the essay “Many Thousands Gone”:

Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.[xvii]

 Whose identity is he talking about? He doesn’t sound like he’s located himself as “the Negro” in this passage.

I found the answer to this “we” question in a book of correspondence between Baldwin and his friend and editor, Sol Stein.  Baldwin writes of the crucial importance of those essays to define himself in relation to society this way:

I was trying to decipher my own situation, to spring my trap, and it seemed to me the only way I could address it was not take the tone of the victim. As long as I saw myself as a victim, complaining about my wretched state as a black man in a white man’s country, it was hopeless. Everybody knows who the victim is as long as he’s howling. So I shifted the point of view to ‘we.’ Who is the ‘we’? I’m talking about we, the American people.[xviii]

I don’t think this sort of clear-headed embodiment of the collective “we” would have been possible if Baldwin were still the angry young man on the Harlem streets, in the midst of a rage that he said threatened to consume him like it did his friend who jumped from the George Washington Bridge.

Of course, Baldwin is still the master of speaking from “I.” In his famous essay “Stranger in the Village,” he talks about his time in Switzerland, where villagers would merrily call him “Neger” the German word for black, having no idea, isolated as they were, how that sound resonated in Baldwin’s mind.

Here Baldwin is not speaking as a collective we, but as himself, and working to put the reader in his shoes. As his friend Sol Stein explains,

It is Baldwin’s…insight as a writer into the visions that people have of others and otherness, that enable readers who are not black to momentarily experience what a black man feels, and invites the black reader to grasp the origin of the white man’s desperate clinging to…prejudice…[xix]

From “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin writes:

There is a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted Nigger! yesterday – the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.[xx]

In this essay, we see his famous stylistic technique again, the concrete particular raised to the poetic musing. He takes us from Swiss neighbors touching his hair and face, thinking his black color will rub off, to the conflation of the village to all of Western civilization, “the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted.”[xxi] He uses it as an opportunity to explore the unique history of the American Negro, and that as opposed to blacks in Europe.

Europe’s black possessions remained – and do remain – in Europe’s colonies, at which remove they represented no threat whatever to European identity. If they posed a problem at all for the European conscience, it was a problem which remained comfortingly abstract: in effect the black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe. But in America, even as a slave, he was an inescapable part of the general social fabric and no American could escape having an attitude toward him.[xxii]

He ends the essay with powerful insistence:

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa….This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.[xxiii]

This experience of being a stranger, a true stranger in Switzerland, illuminated a way for him to articulate the racial situation back home. Because no matter how loathed and despised he felt in the States, there was an intimate engagement of the races due to our unique history.

I can’t help but think this idea of being a “stranger” also comes from living in France where the word for “foreigner” and “stranger” are one and the same: étranger. The near decade of living as a foreigner, as a “strange” person, couldn’t help but have him reflect on what he did know, the place where he was known.

But what’s Baldwin to do with these insights? With this reassessment? The time had come to act. It’s the late fifties and the civil rights movement is heating up in the United States. People are standing up for their freedom. Being killed. Baldwin’s distance allows him room to create these powerful conceptual frameworks for explaining contemporary race issues. But once understood, the distance also brings with it danger – the danger of not facing up to responsibility and taking on a role as active participant. Of missing the most important moment in his country’s struggle.

One day it begins to be borne in on the writer and with great force, that he is living in Europe as an American…This crucial day may be the day on which an Algerian taxi driver tells him how it feels to be an Algerian in Paris…Or it may be the day on which someone asks him to explain Little Rock – and, corny as the words may sound, more honorable – to go to Little Rock than sit in Europe, on an American passport trying to explain it.[xxiv]

And so Baldwin returns to America. He starts reporting from the South, turns his attention to the unfolding drama in his country. “Once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it,” he says in an interview. “I didn’t think of myself as a public speaker, or as a spokesman, but I knew I could get a story past the editor’s desk.”[xxv]

In his essay “A Fly in the Buttermilk” where he speaks with some of the “integrated” students in Charlotte, North Carolina, he says:

…it was ironical to reflect that if I had not lived in France for so long I would never have found it necessary – or possible – to visit the American South. The South had always frightened me. [xxvi]

 He writes about the civil rights movement – for outlets such as Partisan Review, Harper’s, even popular magazines like Mademoiselle – in his typical, personal style. Other people could cover the sit-ins, the marches, the big events. Baldwin picks quiet, quotidian moments that vibrate with intensity to focus on: a look from a black man on an Atlanta bus, his eyes telling Baldwin “that what I was feeling he had been feeling, at much higher pressure, all his life;”[xxvii] observing one of the black students in an all-white school doing his homework, “pride and silence…his weapons”[xxviii] as insults and violence threatened him daily; or the white principal charged with protecting that student sitting uncomfortably in an interview as he struggles to both defend and deny injustice simultaneously. Segregation is the only way of life he’s known – but how do you face a child and justify such acts?

Baldwin’s second collection of essays, Nobody Knows my Name: More Notes of a Native Son, was published to wide acclaim; it’s his first book since being back in the United States. He becomes more than a writer now; he does become a spokesman. He gives speeches at rallies, makes numerous radio and television appearances. The number of interviews he does in the early sixties nearly outpaces the number of pages he writes. He’s invited to meetings with Robert Kennedy. He’s on the cover of Time magazine.

“Down at the Cross” is published in the New Yorker and makes quite a mark. That essay, along with an open letter he writes to his nephew, is republished as The Fire Next Time, which becomes a national bestseller. It is considered one of his masterpieces. The urgency and anger is more palpable than in any of his other work thus far. Like the title, the essay is beautiful, incendiary. “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” he asks.[xxix]

Yes, ultimately, he does; the way to solve the racial strife in the country, a country that is like a burning house, is through love and accepting that no one is free until everyone is free.

But first, Baldwin makes you feel the indignities suffered by blacks, in a controlled, seething prose. In this passage, he’s describing what he terms a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America during the Second World War. Notice, too, what he has to say about home here:

You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is a candidate for death in [his country’s] defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman….who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured, when he returns – home: search, in his shoes, for a job, for a place to live; ride, in his skin, on segregated buses; see, with his eyes, the signs saying “White” and “Colored” and especially the signs that say “White Ladies” and “Colored Women”; look into the eyes of his wife; look into the eyes of his son; listen, with his ears, to political speeches, North and South; imagine yourself being told to “wait.” And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.[xxx]

These are commandments, imperatives he’s issuing. Search, see, ride, look.

It’s a sermon, Baldwin is a preacher again, the reader his congregation. One of the main episodes he describes in the book, in fact, recounts his days as a young Pentecostal minister. The other is an eerie meeting with Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam.

Baldwin’s writing is no longer just describing, analyzing; his is writing meant to mobilize.

At the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well, if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk – eviction, imprisonment, torture, death….I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand – and no one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible. [xxxi]

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is at his authoritative height, the emotion issuing an unflinching demand to face things for what they are. It reads as a cross between literary art, philosophical inquiry, and active manifesto.

His fiction, however, begins to suffer. Another Country is the novel he remarks he was destined not to survive. It is uneven in sections, clunky even, a word I would never apply to his previous work.

Take this bit of dialogue after the protagonist’s friend has been hurt and they discuss going to the hospital:

“No, man. Listen. If I go with you, it’s going to be a whole lot of who shot John because I’m black and you’re white. You dig? I’m telling it to you like it is.”

Vivaldo said, “I really don’t want to hear all that shit, Rufus…Are you mad at me…?”

“Shit no baby, why should I be mad with you?” But he knew what was bothering Vivaldo. He leaned down and whispered, “Don’t you worry, baby, everything’s cool. I know you’re my friend.”[xxxii]

This exchange rings a bit stilted and inauthentic to my ears. These characters have known each other for years and their color is already obvious. Why in dialogue would it be necessary to say “I’m black and you’re white” or “you’re my friend?” other than to make a point? The writing is becoming too obvious, almost as if Baldwin’s lost the touch for nuance. His characters risk serving as simply stand-ins for the heated racial politics that now consumed him.

I like Baldwin both as Baudelaire and as a blues singer. I’m awed by his restrained lyricism and incendiary indictment. Each has its own resonance. But as Stein says, “Baldwin the ex-preacher taught best when he preached least.”[xxxiii] His biographer Campbell thinks he was “too angry” to write during this period. His voice is completely different. Campbell writes:

Nineteen sixty-three was the year his voice broke; and it affected every element of his literary style – his rhythm, his syntax, his vocabulary, the way in which he made discriminations and reached judgments. It was the year Baldwin shifted away from the lyrical cadence that had been his signature tune.[xxxiv]

I believe anger can be channeled effectively – righteously, well – and Baldwin proves this time and time again. It is one of the things I most admire him for. But he himself agrees that the demands put on him to serve as a spokesman during this time divorced him from his true calling as a writer and I have no doubt that these pressures changed his writing.

In an early essay from 1951, Baldwin had said:

Leaving aside the considerable question of what relationship precisely the artist bears to the revolutionary, the reality of man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms; and who has…the necessity thrust on him of being the representative of some thirteen million people. It is a false responsibility (since writers are not congressmen) and impossible, by its nature, of fulfillment.[xxxv]

 By the sixties, Baldwin is speaking as a representative. The mission is important to him, he feels it necessary to play an active role in the movement. But this new role saps much of his will and energy to write. Though he had planned to stay in the United States when he returned, he finds the only time he can really write is when he leaves the US again.

He makes more and more frequent trips across the ocean, often finding solace in Turkey now, a country that has no history of the slave trade and no colonies like the French. This country, free of those attachments and associations, makes him feel as if he can breathe again. Most of the work he completes in the sixties is on these trips to Istanbul, an escape from the heated situation back “home.”

He writes to his agent that he is reconciling himself to being a “transatlantic commuter” and laments the fact that “I am a stranger everywhere.”[xxxvi]

In a letter to his friend Stein on one of his sojourns abroad, he writes:

It will be nice to see the homestead again. It would be even nicer if I could feel that I’d ever feel at home there. I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home. Nowhere. I try to keep remembering something Peter Viereck told me, simply that you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.[xxxvii]

 Ultimately, he uses his celebrity for good, but it takes him from what he deep-down wants to be: a writer. An American writer. “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer,” he said in his autobiographical notes in 1955. [xxxviii]

In 1970 he says,

Because of what I had become in the minds of the people, I ceased to belong to me. Once you are in the public limelight…you have to realize you’ve been paid for…to save myself I finally had to leave [America] for good.[xxxix]

 Baldwin will continue his transatlantic commute for nearly two decades more, spending his final years in the South of France. “He liked the French because they left him alone.”[xl] And as he had discovered, being left alone was a requirement for writing.

Baldwin does more work, much more work, including the novels Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and Just Above my Head to name a couple. They have their glorious moments as all Baldwin work does, but nothing quite reaches the heights of his earlier work. The language isn’t quite as inventive, pieces often seem to cry out for better structure. I don’t mean to gloss over the rest of his career – I think some of the later work has been judged too harshly; Baldwin is still able to deliver devastating turns of phrase, truths that rise off the page at times – but the major works that came from his first expatriation and are still considered his landmark contributions have already been written.

There is then this paradox to grapple with: by living abroad and gaining insight into his homeland, Baldwin produced his most luminous writing. But he never shook the feeling of displacement thereafter and in some ways, felt he never had a true home again. What happens to you, your work, when you feel you belong nowhere, when the initial breakthrough is over?

This is something I think about, as I understand the sense of displacement; I straddle two cultures. Wherever I may settle, I am still an étrangère – a foreigner, a stranger. I feel that both at “home” and abroad now.

I think Baldwin offered one possible answer early on in his career, in Giovanni’s Room, his favorite book and mine. “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,”[xli] he said. Irrevocable. Not something you can escape or change. If this creates unease – the fact that home becomes not a fixed place or somewhere to set down roots, but rather a concept, a condition – that tension can be mined for our art. If it’s true that we write from our own experience, that the currency of fiction comes from conflict, this constant reckoning can animate our work. To have something we carry inside us, everywhere, yet are always searching for at the same time.

Or maybe the answer really does lie in Another Country, Baldwin’s sprawling novel that spans two continents and complicated relationships. In it, he describes the characters Yves and Eric, a Franco-American couple this way: “Each was, for the other, the dwelling place that each had despaired of finding.”[xlii]

This is one of Baldwin’s obsessions, too – as it probably is for many of us – love. Home is found in connection. Love infuses his work.

Because James Baldwin, no matter where he made his life, located his art in the ability to speak truthfully about the human condition, in all its glory – profound, painful, noble, absurd. Sorrow and joy, both. His gift: the local made universal, his reality written so it reverberates in the bones.

[i] Baldwin, James, Baldwin: Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in The Street, The Devil Finds Work, Other Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: The Library of America: 1998), p. 187. This quote comes from the essay “A Fly in the Buttermilk” in the volume Nobody Knows my Name. Emphasis mine.

[ii] _____, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, VHS, directed by Karen Thorsen (New York: Maysles Films Inc & WNET, 1989).

[iii] Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1962), p. 128.

[iv] “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here,” from “The Discovery of What it Means to Be An American,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 142.

[v] Zaborowska, Magdalena J., James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

[vi] Baldwin, James in Thorsen, Karen film.

[vii] _____, “Introduction,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 136. From the introduction of Nobody Knows My Name.

[viii] _____, Giovanni’s Room, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1956), p. 6.

[ix] _____, “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 8. From Notes of a Native Son.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Baldwin, James, The James Baldwin Anthology, DVD, directed by Claire Burch, (Regent Press, 2008).

[xii] _____, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 138. Emphasis mine.

[xiii] _____, “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78,” interview by Jordan Elgrably, The Paris Review, 1984 (retrieved online 2011).

[xiv] Wright, Richard, “Black Boy in France,” interview in Ebony, 1953, quoted in Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).

[xv] Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 70.

[xvi] Baldwin, James, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 137.

[xvii] _____, “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 20.

[xviii] _____, quoted in Baldwin, James and Stein, Sol, Native Sons, (New York: One World, 2004), p. 9.

[xix] Baldwin, James and Stein, Sol, Native Sons, p. 11.

[xx] Baldwin, James, “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 123.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 121.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 125.

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 129.

[xxiv] Baldwin, James, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 141. Little Rock refers to the nine black students trying to integrate a high school in Arkansas and the famous standoff that ensued.

[xxv] _____, Interview in “James Baldwin: The Art of Fiction No. 78,” The Paris Review.

[xxvi] _____, “A Fly in the Buttermilk,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 187.

[xxvii] _____, “Nobody Knows my Name: A Letter from the South,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 204.

[xxviii] _____, “A Fly in the Buttermilk,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 193.

[xxix] _____, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1962), p. 127

[xxx] Ibid, p. 76. Emphasis mine.

[xxxi] Ibid, p. 140.

[xxxii] Baldwin, James, Another Country, (London: Corgi Books, 1962), p. 27.

[xxxiii] Baldwin, James and Stein, Sol, Native Sons, p. 14.

[xxxiv] Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates, p. 181.

[xxxv] Baldwin, James, “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 25. Emphasis mine.

[xxxvi] Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates, p. 152.

[xxxvii] Baldwin, James, and Stein, Sol, Native Sons, p. 87.

[xxxviii] Baldwin, James, “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, p. 9.

[xxxix] Baldwin, James and Stein, Sol, Native Sons, p. 13.

[xl] CampbPell, James, Talking at the Gates, p. 254.

[xli] Baldwin, James, Giovanni’s Room, p. 92.

[xlii] _____, Another Country, p. 143.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Patrick Ross December 7, 2012 at 6:37 am

Thank you for this essay, Sion. You have such a mastery of Baldwin, his writing, and his life. I learned a lot here, and am even more intrigued by him now.

Have you considered writing a biography of him? Or–considering your own connection you mention here–writing a “Julie and Julia” memoir, like the blogger did about her “relationship” with Julia Child? I think that would be a really fascinating read.


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