Most literature of Paris delivers a nostalgia of the lost generation of which Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were a part. Writers (more like writer-wannabes) think there’s something in Paris that confers on writing a special gleam. One literary figure often overlooked is James Baldwin.
Baldwin was only 24 when he arrived in Paris, with just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism—an escape that be believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.
Baldwin was introduced to me in college American literature class. Since then he has maintained a grip on my imagination. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room (one of my all-time favorite novels) the novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between the narrator, David, a young American ex-soldier, and a darkly handsome Italian barman named Giovanni. I was inspired in equal parts by the depth and style of Baldwin’s prose, and the fact that he, a gay black man had written so boldly and lived so openly at a time when there was such deep social hatred and opposition aimed at those of us who shared either Baldwin’s race or sexual identity, let alone both. What’s more, the fact that he had found a way to live and write freely in Paris made the city feel like an essential destination for me.
I usually have no agenda going in Paris, rather want to allow the city to appeal to my whim. Why not go on a little Baldwin trail this time, starting at the famous Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours on the second floor, drinking coffee and Cognac to keep warm while working on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain?