Monday, January 20, 2014

Ellery Washington on Baldwin in Paris . . .

James Baldwin in 1962
Photo by Carl Mydans
Time and Life Pictures
Getty Images

An interesting, if enigmatic, look at "James Baldwin's Paris," by Ellery Washington (New York Times, January 17, 2014):
One bright afternoon in Paris, on the terrace of the cafe Deux Magots, in St.-Germain-des-Prés, I found myself engaged in an increasingly animated conversation about the writer James Baldwin and the notorious feud that broke out between him and his fellow African-American expatriate Richard Wright . . . . "It started right here," . . . said [expatriate African-American novelist -- and Baldwin enthusiast -- Jake Lamar,] of the dispute between Baldwin and Wright, as our waiter swept away our plates to make space for his forthcoming espresso and my cafe allongé. Jake was reminding me that Baldwin and Wright's quarrel had begun upstairs from where we sat, facing the cobblestone Place St.-Germain-des-Prés and l'Église St.-Germain-des-Prés itself, the oldest church in Paris.

Had we been actually sitting inside the cafe that day, in the winter of 1948, he explained, we would have surely caught a glimpse of an earnest young Jimmy Baldwin, slightly disheveled from having arrived from New York only hours before, climbing the narrow steps up to the cafe's second floor, where he was greeted by Wright and the editors of Zero magazine, a rather small but important literary journal that would shortly publish Baldwin's essay "Everybody's Protest Novel."

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 Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism -- an escape that he believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write. His first essay in Zero argued forcefully against the idea of the protest novel, claiming, among other things, that it was inherently sentimental, and therefore dishonest. Wright, who had already established himself as an international literary force based on the critical success of several novels, was deeply offended by Baldwin's essay, reading it as a direct attack on the validity of his work. Shortly after the essay was published, the two men ran into each other at Brasserie Lipp, less than a block from Les Deux Magots, and Wright immediately lit into Jimmy, who by all accounts held his own.
I love reading these literary essays about literary figures -- and this essay has a nice hook in the "increasingly animated conversation" between Jake Lamar and Ellery Washington about James Baldwin's "notorious feud" with Richard Wright. Why do I love this sort of writing? Because I feel like I'm in on some literary gossip, I suppose, as if I'm privy to the literary scene and one of the insiders.

I'm a bit unclear on the chronology of the feud between Baldwin and Wright, however. Baldwin's essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel" -- which implied that Bigger Thomas, the main character of Baldwin's Wright's novel Native Son, was a flat character deficient in psychological complexity and thus not credible and which led to the end of the two writers' friendship -- was published in 1949. Washington seems to be speaking of 1948 in quoting Lamar's words as to when the feud started, but the climax of the disagreement seems to have occurred during an accidental meeting after publication. Can any erudite readers clarify the chronological details?

Update: Thanks due to the author, Mr. Ellery Washington, for contacting me and correcting my typo.



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