Tuesday, November 11, 2003

James Baldwin

Fifty-five years ago today James Baldwin took a one-way flight to Paris. As a black person in the States, he had always felt himself to be outside of society, never part of it, and therefore he assumed that he could leave all things American behind. In Paris he discovered that his behavior, his speech, and his dress all completely identified him to the Parisians as an American, which astounded him: he said he was "alchemized into an American." Three and a half years later, Baldwin returned to the US with the manuscript for 'Go Tell It on the Mountain', which he characterised as "the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else." His return to the States would not last long, however: he left for good after the assassinations of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

There was quite a community of writers in the Left Bank in those days, including many of our best black writers who left to escape racial oppression and lack of respect. Regardless of the reason, many were drawn to the sense of freedom in postwar Paris... in addition to Baldwin, Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus all found Paris cafe life to be fertile ground for their writing. These writers weren't the first or last for whom this was true: their experience in Paris echoed that of the Lost Generation (Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Thomas Wolfe, etc) and foreshadowed that of the Beat Generation (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Richard Brautigan, Charles Bukowski, LeRoi Jones, Ken Kesey, Kenneth Patchen, Gary Snyder, etc).