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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

 | 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Claudine Raynaud

Ex-Patriations, Diasporic Motions

South by Southeast: James Baldwin in Provence

D. Quentin Miller

Résumé

Despite the relative longevity of Saint-Paul-de-Vence as James Baldwin’s place of residence, critics have paid much less attention to it than they have to Paris and to Istanbul, where he spent his first two periods of exile. Saint-Paul was a peaceful refuge for Baldwin, far removed from the turbulence of American race relations and the burdens of publicity in cultural centers like New York and Paris. Yet Saint-Paul was more than just another site of exile for Baldwin. I will argue that Saint-Paul offered an imaginative territory to reconcile his longstanding antagonism to the American South, where he was conceived. A town in southern France becomes for Baldwin the perfect vantage point from which to write about the American South, which is the setting of much of his final novel Just Above My Head and his final work of non-fiction The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Although Baldwin’s later works written in Saint-Paul are certainly not devoid of racial violence, their distinct emphasis is on the attempt to recapture the lost innocence of youth in a southern setting, exactly as Baldwin did in Saint-Paul. Terrifying though the South may have been to Baldwin, it was his origin, and in order to confront this origin, he moved physically south of Paris to move imaginatively south of New York.

Texte intégral

1In a 1961 essay and again in a 1979 interview James Baldwin described himself as a transatlantic ‘commuter’ (Baldwin 1985: 309; Standley and Pratt 1989: 178). The product of the so-called ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans from the American South to New York City where he was born in 1924, Baldwin’s life was marked by intellectual and physical motion between North America, Europe, and Africa. In the tradition of his modernist predecessors such as James Joyce who were also in constant motion, Baldwin concluded many of his publications with the names of the cities in which he wrote them. His 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, for instance, ends with ‘New York, San Francisco, Istanbul’. His 1972 book-length essay No Name in the Street ends even more vertiginously: ‘New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, London, Istanbul, Saint-Paul-de-Vence’. But his 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk and his 1976 book The Devil Finds Work both end with a single place name: ‘St.-Paul-de-Vence’. His remaining books do not employ this same convention, but they were also written largely in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. This town near the Riviera is the closest Baldwin ever came to a settled home, though he continued to ‘commute’ to the United States during his final years. Saint-Paul is in fact the only place where he ever bought a house. He died there in 1987, surrounded by friends and family.

2Despite the importance and relative longevity of Provence as Baldwin’s place of residence, critics have paid much less attention to it than they have to Paris, his initial city of exile, and to Istanbul, the subject of Magdalena Zaborowska’s acclaimed recent study James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade (2009). Zaborowska attempts to reposition Baldwin by scrutinizing the long-overlooked writings of his middle years as directly related to his experiences in Turkey. Her work is part of a larger attempt in Baldwin studies to overcome the tendency to focus exclusively on Baldwin’s early works, published between 1948 and 1963 (the latter being the publication year of The Fire Next Time, the book which marked, for many of Baldwin’s critics, the end of his golden age). Zaborowska’s work is an important move away from New York and Paris as the primary places that fueled Baldwin’s artistic imagination. I hope to continue this pattern by focusing on Saint-Paul-de-Vence as an integral place for understanding and gaining a deeper appreciation for Baldwin’s final works.

  • 1 In a 1976 interview discussing his move to Saint-Paul, Baldwin admitted, ‘I don’t like cities anymo (...)

3Saint-Paul-de-Vence is notably unlike the other major places where Baldwin lived because it is not a city.1 Tucked into the hills north of Nice, Saint-Paul provided for Baldwin what the village of Loeche-les-Bains, Switzerland offered him for a brief time in the early 1950s: a private place where he could concentrate on memories and convert them into fictional narrative. He mused on his location in Loeche in the famous essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ saying that ‘the village offers, obviously, no distractions whatever’ (Baldwin 1955: 161). Like Loeche-les-Bains, Saint-Paul was a peaceful refuge for Baldwin, as far removed from the turbulence of American race relations and the burdens of publicity in cultural centers like New York and Paris as he could get. Yet Saint-Paul was more than just another site of exile. It was, according to David Leeming and Nicholas Delbanco, a ‘court’ with Baldwin the new ‘royalty’ who set up a fanciful social world on his own terms (Leeming 1994: 314–315). As the site of the avant-garde Foundation Maeght, it was also an inspiring refuge for an artist: the modernist painter Georges Braque once inhabited the very house Baldwin eventually bought. As with much of Baldwin’s life, though, nothing was quite that simple. He referred to his writing studio in Saint-Paul as ‘the torture chamber’ (Campbell 1991: 264). Despite the fact that critics and readers did not tend to love (or even tolerate) Baldwin’s late works, they served a revitalizing function for the author, who said in his final years, ‘I am just beginning as a writer’ (Campbell 1991: 265), and ‘In a sense I’m freer than I’ve ever been before. As a writer, I’m still very young. I have a lot to find out and I’m kind of curious to see what happens’ (MacArthur 1983: B4).

4Saint-Paul offered an imaginative territory to reconcile his longstanding antagonism to the American South, where he was conceived. A town in southern France became for Baldwin the perfect vantage point from which to write about the American South, which is the setting of part of his final novel Just Above My Head and his final work of non-fiction The Evidence of Things Not Seen. He describes himself as ‘shaken’ by a trip to Atlanta in 1979 to prepare for Evidence and says, ‘Coming back to Atlanta in 1979 after all those years—there was something sinister about it... There was something in it I knew I didn’t want to look at’ (MacArthur: B4). The south of France offered a place where he could look at things that were difficult, and that required confrontation. This included not only America’s tortured present, but Baldwin’s tortured past.

5Baldwin renders the American South as a primal site of terror and madness in his earlier works. In the 1961 essay ‘Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South’, he watches the landscape with great trepidation as his plane flies ‘over the rust-red earth of Georgia’:

I would not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees. My mind was filled with the image of a black man, younger than I, perhaps, or my own age, hanging from a tree, while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.
(Baldwin 1961: 87)

6Characters in his early novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country flee from the South and recall their time there with revulsion. The scene of racial violence in the famous story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ takes place in the South. The play Blues for Mister Charlie is set in the South and the subject is the racially motivated murder of a black youth who has traveled to the North and returned with ‘uppity’ ways that cannot be reconciled with the southern status quo except through murder. The novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone contains a brutal scene of a wrongfully imprisoned black man who is sent to a prison ‘farm’ in the South where the verbal, sexual, and physical abuse of the inmate is more than a little reminiscent of the horrors that occurred on slave plantations in the antebellum South. The chilling story ‘Going to Meet the Man’ is perhaps Baldwin’s starkest rendition of the South in terms of racial violence.

7All of these works predate Baldwin’s years in Saint-Paul, from 1970 through his death in 1987. Saint-Paul was where he arrived at a truce with the American South, albeit a qualified one. Although Baldwin’s later works written in Saint-Paul are certainly not devoid of racial violence, their distinct emphasis is on the attempt to recapture the lost innocence and comfort of youth in a southern setting, exactly as Baldwin did in Saint-Paul. Terrifying though the South may have been to Baldwin, it was his origin, and in order to confront this origin, he moved physically south of Paris to move imaginatively south of New York.

8Biographer David Leeming summarizes the tepid reviews of Just Above My Head and claims, ‘What the critics for the most part missed about this novel was its relation to Baldwin’s earlier work, as the culmination of a long continuous tale based in his own life and related to the themes he treated in his essays’ (Leeming 1994: 350). I agree with Leeming’s assessment and also with Lynn Orilla Scott’s qualification of it: ‘Just Above My Head is an extraordinarily self-reflective and self-reflexive novel, which not only revisits Baldwin’s earlier fiction and nonfiction, but also represents Baldwin’s effort to shape his own personal legacy as well as to challenge historical legacies’ (Scott 2002: 121). I would like to add to these critical perspectives by asserting the importance of landscape to the composition of Baldwin’s final novel, which ranges over space to include New York, San Francisco, London, and the American South. It is not only Baldwin’s longest novel, but his most spatially expansive. The rust-red earth that he had imagined nearly two decades earlier is transformed in this final work of fiction as Baldwin’s personal landscape stabilized. The varied landscape of the novel is a compendium of Baldwin’s past, and the gospel music that permeates the novel is a way to reconcile his longstanding alienation from the church and from the South. Having found a home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Baldwin writes as a ‘witness to the journey’ of himself and of his fictional characters (Standley and Pratt 1989: 191).

9As late as 1977, he did not necessarily regard Saint-Paul as his home. In an interview with Robert Coles that year he suggested that he was ‘coming home’ to live in New York, but said, ‘I’m going back to France in a few days, because that’s where I can best finish the novel. [...] I’ve got to go back and finish something. Maybe it’ll be the end of more than the novel—a long apprenticeship, I sometimes think’ (Coles 1977: 14). He says something similar in the essay ‘Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone’: ‘If I am a part of the American house, and I am, it is because my ancestors paid. [...] now is the moment, for me, to return to the eye of the hurricane’ (Baldwin 1998: 779). Coles describes America as ‘a country [Baldwin] insists he has never really left, only crossed the ocean to look at more intently’ (Coles 1977: 1). Yet Baldwin never settled in the United States, never bought a house there, and did not in fact return after making these pronouncements in 1977 except for short stints. His editor of the early 1970s, Don Hutter, says, ‘He clearly felt he could no longer live in New York, though it was still his primary society’ (Wetherby 1990: 305).

  • 2 All parenthetical page citations refer to the primary text under consideration: James Baldwin, Just (...)

10Robert Lantz, Baldwin’s agent through the early 1970s, described Baldwin’s home in Saint-Paul as ‘gorgeous with a beautiful, unkempt garden’ (Wetherby 1990: 304). Biographer W.J. Wetherby glosses, ‘The setting seemed perfect for his writing. When he was tired he could recuperate on the terrace, “an island of silence and peace”. He ate lunch at a bamboo-shaded table with a view of the village, white and shining in the sun. Roses climbed over the back entrance leading to the kitchen’ (Wetherby 1990: 304). This pastoral description does indeed sound perfect for a writer, but the novel Baldwin produced in Saint-Paul was a turbulent one, an unkempt garden to be sure, beginning with a fatal heart attack and moving through scenes of anguish: incest, murder, and tortured love affairs, to name only a few of its subjects. Tempering this darkness in the novel is a great deal of fellowship and laughter as well as sex, what the narrator calls, ‘the flaming outer rim of love’ (94).2 It is significant that Baldwin never wrote about Saint-Paul in his fiction, and yet the tranquility of the setting clearly affected his vision of his homeland.

11To approach Just Above My Head in a short space requires untangling one of its tangled skeins, what Lynn Scott identifies as ‘its range of thematic and artistic concerns’ (Scott 2002: 120). I have isolated Baldwin’s treatment of the American South as a way of demonstrating the decided shift that took place in Baldwin’s years in Saint-Paul. The critical take on Baldwin’s popular demise post-1963 is that he had spent too much time in exile, that his heavy drinking had devolved into full-blown alcoholism, that his fame made him less tolerant of editors, and that he was despondent after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. It is possible, though, to see how Baldwin’s final novel was yet another confrontation with his demons, only now in a more primal way than before. One demon was clearly the South, the landscape of terror that he could only take in small doses. By 1977, in an interview with Robert Coles, this terror had abated; he says, ‘I think there’s more hope in the South, right now, for the people of both races’ than there is in the slums of Harlem and Chicago (Coles 1977: 14). He says in the same interview that ‘the former slaves of the Western colonial empires have come to Europe. [...] A Harlem is rising in Paris’ (Coles 1977: 14). For Baldwin to say that the South held more hope than northern cities and to link those cities to Paris is astonishing, given his antipathy to the South during the Civil Rights era. While he could never live in the American South, the South of France offered a valid substitution.

  • 3 In the essay Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone, Baldwin writes of the Harlem of his youth, ‘Harlem was stil (...)

12Scott describes the novel as ‘autotherapeutic’ specifically in terms of the ‘relationship between a musician and his song [which] parallels that between a writer and his book’ (Scott 2002: 124). Another way to view this autotherapeutic impulse is as an attempt for reconciliation between Baldwin and his place of origin, the terrifying South. The opening sentence of this massive novel in fact signals the journey South: ‘The damn’d blood burst, first through his nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes, and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down’ (13). The journey down is obviously a descent into the underworld, and into Arthur’s literal death, but figuratively it signals Hall’s journey into the past, which involves going ‘down South’ where the scarlet torrent of blood had once been associated with the very landscape in Baldwin’s imagination. ‘Down South’ is not only a common term, but one that is used at least twenty times in this novel, virtually every time the North and the South are described relative to one another. It’s not as though the American South is idyllic in Just Above My Head. Peanut disappears there, presumably the victim of racial hatred. The South is presented as a complex psychological place in the novel; Hall first describes Julia as coming ‘from the Deep South, which we, the children, had never seen but which all our parents remembered, with yearning and fear and pain’ (70).3 This description is a kind of ghostly calling to Hall and the other children who must confront this demon directly if they are to grow. Julia is associated with this tormented land, and as such suffers more than anyone else in the novel, including Arthur. She and her brother Jimmy eventually settle there, taking refuge from the site of her personal torment in the North.

13When Arthur and his gospel quartet initially tour the South, they are not charmed by it, but they are not terrified, either. In fact, they realize that the music teacher who accompanies them ‘is yet more frightened down here than they are. This is chilling, for Mr. Webster was born in the South, and knows it better than they do’ (175). In a letter to Hall, Arthur describes towns from the South with sarcastic wit, but not real fear. A young girl who seduces him gets him to admit that her southern town is ‘prettier than Harlem’ (178). This banal conversation causes him to realize that ‘there was a connection as deep as that inarticulate connection between himself and Peanut and Crunch and Red when they sang’ (179), in other words, a deep bond between himself and this southern stranger which suggests the possibility for a reconciliation between North and South more generally. He and Crunch admit their irrational terror as they move through the South, describing it as a ‘mystery’, and Arthur says, ‘But something in me comes from down here [...] even though I’ve never been here. That’s a mystery, too’ (188). The South operates as a psychological locus in this passage. If the novel’s impulse is to create a story out of memories, it must include the collective cultural memories that predate the lives of its subjects. The journey South for the gospel singers is not just a way to make a living, but a way to plumb the depths of the mystery of the self.

14In terms of landscape, the novel emphasizes streets—associated with New York—and trees—associated with the South. The landscape described here, as Arthur is giving into the young woman’s seduction, is informed by Baldwin’s vantage in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, with its emphasis on trees, wind, and mountains, as much as by the American South:

He has the feeling that he is losing his mind. The streets are bright and empty, stretching into a dreadful future. The houses are low, conspiratorial, trees are everywhere—he has never seen so many trees. [...] A wind blows through his hair, a wind from the glacial mountaintops, the haze, the palpable, wavering summer heat causes the landscape to shiver, to drip like water. He would like to run, forever—where?
(184)

15He and the other singers feel anxiety in the South which paralyzes them: ‘They never felt this way in New York—they moved all over New York’ (186). In a rational moment, Peanut says, ‘We just ain’t used to it’ (200). In fact, they look back on their trip with fondness, and Hall, the narrator, ends up describing New York as a ‘spitefully incoherent’ (218) city and offers this description of the cityscape, by no means any more comforting than the sense of foreboding they experience in the South:

In the shadow of all that metal, beneath the unspeakable hostility of the inescapable trains [...] Crunch’s door, and, all the doors on this avenue, seem furtive, doomed, sordid, choked payment for choked sins. If he were not with Crunch, he would be terrified of the people on this street. [...] eternal damnation must look like this. (250)

16The streets of New York in this novel, if not fully hell, are certainly a menacing force, to the same degree that the trees are in southern landscapes. Indeed, at one point Hall, running through a litany of Arthur’s memories, speaks of ‘the terror of trees and streets’ (461), collapsing the distinctions between urban and rural, North and South.

17What the novel demonstrates is finally that the North and the South, while different, present a false dichotomy for anyone seeking refuge in or from a place. As Julia says of the South, ‘It’s a madhouse down there now, and it’s going to be worse up here’ (340). Reinforcing the idea that fear permeates both regions, even if in different ways, Hall says:

I knew how Julia trembled for [her brother Jimmy] every time he went south, how she feared the newspapers, the radio, the television set; flinched each time the telephone rang, and trembled even more when it didn’t. And, even now, with Jimmy merely riding the subway in New York, not totally at ease; he was surrounded, after all, by a lonely and vindictive and unpredictable people. We were, none of us, ever, totally at ease.
(370)

18True, the South is where Peanut disappears and is presumably murdered, but it is in the North where Julia’s father brutalizes her. As Baldwin was fond of saying, there is no hiding place, and the assumption that the South is the site of violence makes one vulnerable to violence that may happen anywhere. Jimmy reveals the way he feels both fear and murderous rage when he is in the South as a way of warning Arthur that the South will change him: ‘Hell is a staining place’, he says (375). But he immediately tempers his words: ‘But there’s a whole lot more than what I just said—there’s something very beautiful, too—some beautiful people, man, the most beautiful people I ever saw! ’ (376). Hall initially feels a fear so intense driving through the South that he has to empty his bladder; he describes, in a lyrical passage, the way the landscape offers ‘no cover’ for him to relieve himself (386). When he finally does, he realizes that his terror was psychological and discovers that much of his panic is gone. He is surprised, in the wake of his panic, to discover a kind of calm: ‘I did not know the South, had never been here [...] had been frightened all the way here, for my brother, for myself, for Peanut—and yet, once I had arrived, I was glad. It was as though something had been waiting here for me, something that I needed’ (398).

19The ‘something’ is never identified with any clarity, but it’s clear that it represents a paradigm shift for Hall, and for the author. Having confronted the actual physical South, they are able to concentrate more on the troubled regions of their minds, and to let go of the anxieties that blind them. Hall says,

There was something in it so ironic, so wasteful. A beautiful night, a beautiful land: I had watched it as we drove here, watched it now, as we drove through it. All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget.
(398)

  • 4 In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin writes, ‘To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this (...)

20By turning his fear into an understanding of the situation that creates racism, Hall is able to break out of a paralyzing racial torment and to move on. The fact that this realization happens just before Peanut’s disappearance and presumptive murder is ironic, but it does not negate Hall’s realization that places are not to blame for violence. People are, and while such people might appear to be motivated by their hatred of others, Hall comes to understand ‘how deeply, how relentlessly, they despised themselves!’ (417). The novel may be a long study in the dangers of projecting. To project self-hatred onto another causes unspeakable crimes. To project fear into the southern landscape is to fail to realize that the North can be dangerous too, and simultaneously to fail to appreciate the southern landscape and the people who inhabit it. Hall concludes, ‘perhaps the other is ourselves’ (481).4 Observing some recent immigrants to America, he says,

They had to believe in safety, who on earth could blame them? But I knew that they were not safe: if I was not safe in my country, if no viable social contract had been made, or honored, with me, then no one could be safe here. I may not believe that safety exists anywhere, but it certainly cannot exist among such dishonorable people. [...] I knew there was no hiding place down here; they were homeless, I was home.
(532)

21Home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Baldwin wrote these lines with several layers of meaning. As he writes in ‘Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone’, ‘I am not certain that anyone ever leaves home. When “home” drops below the horizon, it rises in one’s breast and acquires the overwhelming power of menaced love’ (Baldwin 1998: 778). Home is not a hiding place; the condition of expatriation is not a place of refuge. Rather, it is a vantage point, and away from Paris, which is too closely reminiscent of New York, Baldwin uses southern France as a platform from which to see the southern U.S. and the northern U.S. as part of the same beautiful, complex, messed-up country.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Baldwin, James. Just Above My Head. New York: Dell, 1979.

Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Dell, 1961.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates. New York: Viking, 1991.

Coles, Robert. ‘James Baldwin Back Home’. The New York Times Book Review (July 31, 1977): 14.

Leeming, David. James Baldwin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

MacArthur, Greg. ‘America’s Native Son Back in France, Writing’. The Hartford Courant (Wednesday, April 6, 1983): B4.

Scott, Lynn Orilla. James Baldwin’s Later Fiction. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002.

Standley, Fred L. and Louis H. Pratt, eds. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Wetherby, W.J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. London: Michael Joseph, 1990.

Zaborowska, Magdalena. James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Notes

1 In a 1976 interview discussing his move to Saint-Paul, Baldwin admitted, ‘I don’t like cities anymore’ and in a 1972 interview he declared, ‘I need a certain kind of privacy’ (Standley and Pratt 1989: 164, 108).

2 All parenthetical page citations refer to the primary text under consideration: James Baldwin, Just Above My Head, New York: Dell, 1979.

3 In the essay Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone, Baldwin writes of the Harlem of his youth, ‘Harlem was still, essentially, a southern community, but lately, and violently, driven north. The people had dragged the South with them, in them, to the northern ghetto’ (Baldwin 1998: 773).

4 In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin writes, ‘To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love... [...] Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not endlessly compelled to repeat it, and, further, believe it, and act on that belief’ (Baldwin 1998: 146). Again, in his essay ‘Freaks and the Ideal of American Manhood’, he writes, ‘each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other’ (Baldwin 1998: 828).

Auteur

Suffolk University, Boston

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