At times, you have been asked which prior literary scene you would want to visit. Some expect you to say the Harlem Renaissance, a popular answer to that question. However, you were born in Harlem and don’t picture the locale as that exciting, though the writers are certainly admirable. Your choice has been the post-war Left Bank in Paris, where Richard Wright and other Black expatriate writers were frequenting the cafés. Wright recorded some observations in “There’s Always Another Café: “The determination of a café in which to spend one’s hours of relaxation is a delicate problem, a matter of trial and error, tasting, testing the nature and quality of the café’s atmosphere.” Unlike Wright, you don’t need a place to listen to American foreign policy. You don’t need to encounter Americans so you can be transported home psychologically. After all, you won’t be abroad long. You don’t think, as Wright did, that Paris is the crossroads of the world, and that the world passes by a Paris café. You think the world is in Queens, New York. You don’t care who goes to the Sorbonne.
Your concern is African American literary history. You want to eavesdrop at Les Deux Magots, the first scene of the famous argument between Wright and James Baldwin, witnessed by Chester Himes and others, in May 1953. It was eighteen months after Baldwin had criticized Wright’s Native Son in “Many Thousands Gone” and the same month that Knopf released Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. His career was on the rise, but he needed money and had called Wright to borrow some. Wright, who had often helped the younger writer financially and professionally, set up the meeting partly to scold Baldwin about ingratitude. The two, never really friends, had clashed before, at the nearby Brasserie Lipp, for example, where Wright first accused Baldwin of betrayal. But the dispute at Les Deux Magots is the one the one you read the most about. The discussion went on for hours, even changing venues---both writers passionate and Himes, whose Lonely Crusade had been harshly reviewed by Baldwin in “History as Nightmare,” becoming bored and drunk. But Himes recalled Baldwin telling Wright, “The sons must slay their fathers,” Wright being a “father” of Baldwin. Or as Baldwin later wrote in “Alas, Poor Richard,” “He had never really been a human being for me, he had been an idol. And idols are created in order to be destroyed.” All that conversation is long gone now except in institutions of record and in the minds of readers, writers, scholars, critics, people somewhat like yourself who stride with determination down the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain on a lovely spring evening. Just a tickle of a breeze.
Lots of cell phones and tablets in Les Deux Magots these days. You don’t hear anything that sounds like a great literary debate. You’re not good enough to spot a potential Wright or Baldwin or Himes---or even a Jean-Paul Satre or Simone de Beauvoir. At the least the food, a salmon dish along with a Saint-Germain spritz, is good. That’s more than you can say for Café Le Flore, where Baldwin once worked and wrote parts of Go Tell It. The duck you order is more like three small, cold, round sausages, for almost twenty-six euros no less. But over at the Café Tournon, another Wright favorite, your drink, a cocktail Louise, is on point. As Richard Wright wrote in his essay, “If you are searching for a café to suit your temperament and fail to find it, take heart and search on, for there is always, in Paris, another café.”