Love, Labor, and Loss: The Trans-Atlantic Homelessness of James Baldwin


How does an African-American writer experience Americanness? What does one do when one feels himself born an outcast in one’s own country and then discovers that that country is the only one he can regard as home? Despite—or perhaps because of—his extraordinary gifts, James Baldwin viewed himself as a stranger in America, and his sense of exclusion was threefold, arising not only from his blackness but also from his homosexuality and his identity as an intellectual. At the age of 24, fearing that his life in the United States might soon topple either into violence or a fatal self-contempt, Baldwin traveled to Paris, where he remained for many years. In a superficial sense, Baldwin’s transatlantic life afforded him two homes instead of one. Yet, as his writings confirm, Baldwin’s experiences outside the United States convinced him that he had no true spiritual home anywhere. He could not be truly, comfortably himself in either location. This essay discusses how Baldwin’s European sojourns served to confirm his Americanness — a confirmation he could regard only as bittersweet and tragic. Having observed White Americans both at home and abroad, Baldwin was able to reflect eloquently on the American need to regard itself as somehow exempt from the judgments that hang heavily over the rest of the world. He saw America’s desperate insistence on its own innocence as pervading the nation’s character, whether it was expressed in racial attitudes, foreign policy, or the complex repressions of sexual longing. And that need for exemption circled back to America’s distrust of serious thought and the fear that earnest intellectual labor would tear aside once and for all the mask and myth of American purity. The failure of America, he believed, was a failure of honesty compounded by an incapacity to love. Finding nothing outside of America in which to place his faith, Baldwin placed his profoundly reluctant confidence in the United States. Like Baldwin, we must place our reliance in sympathy, forgiveness, and a rediscovery of common ground. We must, in short, rediscover love, for we, too, have no other place to go.


James Baldwin; Georg Lukacs; National mythologies; Transatlantic homelessness; estrangement; exclusion; Americanness

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Published : 2023-12-29

MattesonJ. (2023). Love, Labor, and Loss: The Trans-Atlantic Homelessness of James Baldwin. Review of International American Studies, 16(2), 29-52.

John T. Matteson
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA  United States

John Matteson (born March 3, 1961) is an American professor of English and legal writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his first book Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matteson graduated with an A.B. in history from Princeton University in 1983 . He then received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1986, and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1999. He served as a law clerk for US District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle before working as a litigation attorney at Titchell, Maltzman, Mark, Bass, Ohleyer & Mishel in San Francisco and with Maupin, Taylor, Ellis & Adams in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has written articles for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New England Quarterly, Streams of William James, and Leviathan. His second book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller was published in January 2012 and received the 2012 Ann M. Sperber Biography Award as the year’s outstanding biography of a journalist or other figure in media. It was also a finalist for the inaugural Plutarch Award, the prize for best biography of the year as chosen by the Biographers International Organization (BIO), and was shortlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. His W. W. Norton & Company annotated edition of Little Women was published in November 2015, featuring many exclusive photographs from Alcott’s childhood home, Orchard House, as well as numerous illustrations and stills from the various film adaptations. Matteson’s most recent book, A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, was published in February 2021. Matteson appeared in the 2018 documentary Orchard House: Home of Little Women. Matteson is a former treasurer of the Melville Society and is a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society’s advisory board. Matteson is a fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society and has served as the deputy director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

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