To celebrate publication of the new edition of James Campbell’s essential biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, here is an extract about Baldwin’s relocation from New York to Paris in 1948. Campbell met Baldwin in the 1970s and was a regular visitor at his home in France during the last decade of his life. Their friendship makes the biography no less incisive as an appraisal of Baldwin’s life and work; Baldwin would frequently refer other journalists to Campbell for insights into his life and work. Elegantly written, candid and original, it is a compelling account of the life and work of a writer who held to the principle that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.
Lord, I Ain’t No Stranger Now
An Extract from Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by James Campbell
‘Being a problem is a strange experience—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in boyhood and in Europe.‘ – W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
“Why did you leave America?”
Baldwin seldom refused a request for an interview, and once he was famous and “Paris” had become part of his legend, he was asked this question many times. He gave different answers on different occasions, but his replies are all basic variations on the explanation he sent to William Phillips early in 1949, a few months after settling into St-Germain-des-Prés. Paris seems to have at once unwound him and disclosed his deepest fears and hurts. The discretion over “the housing shortage,” the polite phrasing, the innocent need to convince himself that what Countee Cullen had told him was true—that there was no “prejudice against the Negro in the literary world” or any other world—have all but been abandoned: at home, he told Phillips, he had worked himself into such a state that he scarcely knew where he was going or what he wanted. As causes, he mentions race, Calvinism, sex, a “violent, anarchic, hostility-breeding” pattern which, once one has discovered that it has “turned inward,” then seems invested with the power to kill.
This is a remarkable moment in Baldwin’s development; for he is seeing himself from the outside, as someone who can say I did not know who I was. Yet by detaching himself from his own dislocation, he has started to transcend the condition. The past months in recently liberated Paris, he adds in his letter to Phillips, though probably inexcusable from a practical point of view, have been the saving of him; it was “the best move” he could have made.
However, he still felt guilty about deserting the family. Even though the next oldest, George, and some of the others were now of an age to earn money, Baldwin found it hard to justify running away. Emile Capouya remembers him admitting desperately that he could not go on trying to support them. “I suppose if he was going to write anything, he couldn’t do it at the same time as running elevators and sweeping floors.” Baldwin felt that his flight from home “stank of betrayal.”
The price of getting to Paris by airplane in 1948 was $660, or about half a year’s wages for a New York laborer. Once he had paid for his ticket, he was left with only $40 out of the Rosenwald Fellowship funds to sustain himself. But money meant nothing when he was faced with his own negation: “I did not know who I was.” The flight to Paris was a leap into visibility.
When Baldwin first set foot in Paris on November 11, 1948, it had not yet recovered from the depredations of the war; the city was running on bicycles and enduring food rations. It was possible for a foreigner to eat and sleep frugally, however, and the large number of young Americans living there on the dispensations of the GI Bill provided the basis of a social circle.
The $40 lasted about three days, then he was broke. Poverty in Paris is part of the mythology of the expatriate American writer, but in Baldwin’s case it was truly dire. He stayed broke for most of the next nine years. The odd jobs which had supported him in New York were not available here. Hateful though those jobs were, they provided quick money. But waiting on tables in Greenwich Village did nothing to equip one for the job of being a waiter in Paris. His earning potential from writing was also reduced, since the journals he had contributed to at home were unlikely to take the trouble of shipping books for review across the ocean in expectation of receiving a notice two months later. Writing for French journals, on the other hand, was badly paid, and involved obstacles of a linguistic and social sort which he was not yet ready to confront.
The American magazines would be prepared to look at longer, more considered pieces, though, and Baldwin now set his mind to this. On leaving New York he gave his occupation to the passport office as “Foreign Correspondent,” citing Partisan Review even though he had never written a word for them. Foreign Correspondent: it must have sounded grand to the young man with half a book in his bag. And yet he could not have been unaware that it was tempting fate to give himself titles he had scarcely earned.
He had a new range of subjects before him: Paris, the Americans who lived there, the effects on them, and on himself, of being refugees from the New World in the Old. As always, his predominant desire was to write fiction, but practical constraints—money, displacement, lack of time and space to settle into long work—directed him toward the form which suited his talent best: the essay.
His only means of support was his pen, but his main asset for survival was not his pen as such but his literariness. Baldwin was well-read by the time he quit New York, not only in English and American literature but in Russian and French as well—“Baldwin had read everything,” said Mary McCarthy—and his reading, which had drawn him toward France in the first place, also helped prepare him for life there. He had read Balzac, for example, who taught him a lesson about the place of French institutions, from the universality of bureaucracy to the role of the concierge; from Flaubert he learned about the play of morality and hypocrisy, and the importance of conventional behavior; Hemingway advised him about food, drink, and waiters; Henry Miller revealed the secrets of sex in districts which, once only places of legend to Baldwin, now became his haunts: Montmartre, Montparnasse, St-Germain-des-Prés.
Paris had already been imagined by him before he entered France; and when it came to walking on real pavements, this made him more comfortable, and less of a stranger.
In the course of recovering from the Nazi occupation, Paris was still putting its various departments back in order, its intellectual department as much as any other. Certain writers were guilty of collaboration with the Germans. Some were tried and imprisoned; one, Robert Brasillach, was executed; others, such as Drieu la Rochelle, committed suicide before the readjusted state could take its own revenge. A blacklist was drawn up, and magazines and publishers were encouraged to boycott the names appearing on it. There was debate over whether this advice should be followed, or whether writers wouldn’t do better to make peace and get back to work.
None of this meant much to Baldwin. In America, he had experienced the war at more than arm’s length, and he never showed much interest in the perils and privations of French colleagues under German rule. French (and other foreign) intellectual life he was happy to leave alone, his interest in such things extending no further than the interest taken in him. He could write only about subjects and ideas which affected him personally. Thus his 1954 essay on Gide—the only French writer he discussed at length in print—focused on Gide’s homosexuality; occasional comments on Camus were directed at Camus’s concept of justice. He later dismissed the tenets of existentialism as “obvious,” without offering much indication that he had fully absorbed them, and although he met both Sartre and de Beauvoir, they left little impression on him, just as he—young, barely published, and non-French-speaking—meant nothing to them.
French intellectual life was not generally the concern of American blacks in Paris, who had enough to do in trying to define their slot in a foreign culture and, from this new perspective, revising their place in their own. For them, the journey to Paris was not so much a flight to an intellectual capital or to gay and cheap living as an escape from the daily indignities of racism. Living in the City of Light meant less to them than being somewhere that would not penalize them for being dark.
A black man marrying a white woman in New York in the 1940s had to accept the possibility of violence day by day; in Paris mixed marriage between black and white was acceptable. Baldwin moved, as he had moved in New York, among white society, black society, and mixed society, but on the Left Bank each group did not feel alienated or menaced by the other groups. Here no one particularly cared if a black man went into a white woman’s room and left the next morning, or if two men were known to be sleeping together. The French didn’t necessarily approve; they just regarded it as none of their business. “Every Negro in America,” Richard Wright told an interviewer from Ebony magazine in 1953, “carries all 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.”
Racism there undoubtedly was, encountered at unexpected moments in unlikely places, but it wasn’t the stubborn, ugly racism of “We don’t serve Negroes here” or “I don’t rent rooms to colored people,” nor the institutionalized racism of the South with its segregated buses and lunch counters. Europe offered a certain freedom from that, and an older, deeper vision of life. There was some consolation, to New World eyes, in ancient stones and customs. Baldwin might not wish to live by the conventions he had imbibed from Balzac and Flaubert, but he understood the reasons for their existence.
And being the city of artists, Paris attracted other artists. Several black writers were already there or would follow: the novelists William Gardner Smith, Frank Yerby, and Chester Himes; the journalists Ollie Harrington and Richard Gibson. Herbert Gentry, a painter, and Gordon Heath, an actor and singer, were also there. Beauford Delaney arrived in the early 1950s. Many jazz musicians came to Paris too, some because they were unable to work in America. And of course, Richard Wright was in Paris.
Once Baldwin’s plane touched down at the airport after circling above the city for what seemed to a first-time flier like hours, a train took him to the center of town. There he was met by a friend from Greenwich Village who led him straight to St-Germain and the café Deux Magots. Richard Wright was seated at a table with another man. His face brightened when he saw his young protégé, and he greeted him as he always did—“Hey, boy!”
Baldwin and Wright were still friends at this point. Baldwin might have felt that he needed Wright in Paris, but knowing that Wright scarcely needed him, he might also have felt his arrival in his mentor’s city as an embarrassment. And kicking against his sense of shame, he also kicked Wright.
But that came later. For the moment, he was glad to see the great man, and equally pleased to be introduced to some other young writers who congregated at their table. Someone showed him to a small hotel across the boulevard St-Germain, on rue Dragon, and he stayed there a few nights before moving to a more sociable place near the river, on the rue de Verneuil.