James Baldwin: The Risks of Love

James Baldwin had a way of sometimes signing off at the end of his books—“Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961,” “New York, Istanbul, San Francisco, 1965-1967,” or “Oct. 12, 1973, St. Paul de Vence.” Maybe the words spoke to Baldwin about the labor of composition, suggesting rooms where he’d worked, nights when he’d struggled. Think of “Dublin 1904/Trieste 1914.” As a way of signing off along the road Baldwin was traveling, such markers also said something about the glamour and cosmopolitanism that being a writer had always meant to him.

Baldwin said that throughout his adolescence, hemmed in at home and hemmed in by Harlem, he’d “read books like they were some kind of weird food.” But when he told Richard Wright he’d been dreaming of France since he was twelve years old, maybe he was tugging at an older person’s heartstrings a little. He doesn’t seem to have had any special feeling for French culture or for legends of the Lost Generation, though traces of Hemingway have been detected in his earliest stories. Similarly, Harlem Renaissance lore about Countee Cullen taking classes at the Sorbonne or Langston Hughes waiting tables in Montmartre doesn’t seem to have played much part in Baldwin’s dream of France either. Paris, as the capital of Baldwin’s personal and literary freedom, existed in the future that Wright suddenly projected for him. He followed Wright in 1948, determined to prevent himself from “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” That was the language of universalism before people accepted that black writers had been speaking it all along.

Around the time that Baldwin left Harlem’s churches, New Jersey’s industrial marshes, and Greenwich Village’s bars for Paris, Henry James was returning to Europe in the luggage of a new generation of American expatriates. Otto Friedrich, a young recent Harvard graduate writing a novel in Paris, remembered that at Christmas in 1949 Baldwin gave him a copy of F.O. Matthiessen’s edition of James’s Notebooks inscribed with lines from The Middle Years that he himself had first quoted to Baldwin.

Matthiessen challenged the position, made popular by Van Wyck Brooks in the Twenties, that James made a fatal mistake when he became an expatriate, because he cut himself off from his material and produced tempests in “exquisite teapots.” Matthiessen argued that James offered a robust examination of American values and the American character, raising themes about “the eternal outsider” and “the passionate pilgrim” that were pertinent to Baldwin. For Baldwin, James’s Americans, searching for experience, transcended their backgrounds in “deep and dark” Europe.

Toward the end of his life Baldwin recalled the isolation of not knowing French his first year in Paris. He was thrown back onto his own speech, which was closer to that of Bessie Smith than it was to that of Henry James, he said. But in his hunt for a model, it’s not …

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