James Baldwin On Finding A Home

New Transcendentalist
4 min readApr 26, 2022

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The following is correspondence between some good friends Sol Stein and James Baldwin that I discovered via an article at lithub.com by Hilal Isler. She tells her own story of searching for a home, and summarizes Baldwin who had to leave his native New York and through a series of journeys spent most of his writer’s life in Paris, but also went through Istanbul, Israel and other places.

She summarizes Baldwin’s perspective by saying:

“Once, when a friend encouraged James Baldwin to return to America, or at least to pick one place to settle down permanently, Baldwin told him, he couldn’t settle any one place because he didn’t really belong to any one place. “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it,” he said, and I wonder if this holds true for others, too….home is not, James Baldwin would write in Giovanni’s Room, a place at all, but an irrevocable condition. In a 1957 letter to a high school friend, Baldwin would insist it was necessary to “get over” the idea that there was some place out there where he would fit in once he had “made some real peace” with himself. There was no such place. Maybe there was no such peace or, if there was, it was fleeting, slippery, unsteady.”

Anyway, here’s the relevant correspondence between James Baldwin and his high school friend Sol Stein which comes from a book of their correspondence titled Native Sons p. 93–97 (affiliate link to ethically purchase used at Biblio.com)

“December 7, 1956,

Dear Jimmy….

…Glad you’re coming home, though Peter Viereck is wrong when he says that you don’t live when you’re happy or unhappy; you live where you can work. It’s more complex than that. I had a call from Peter just at about the time that your letter arrived. His fine work seems in the past, his ivory tower has twenty ramparts down any of which he is ready to charge at a moment’s notice. He devotes frantic energies at trying to make ends meet on a professor’s salary — would in a sense break up his family to do so by having his wife live in a nother town because she can get work there. Work is not a penalty.

As for you, do you know that work is not a penalty or a necessary source of pay? It’s not a punishment; you settled that one with the preacher long ago. Work is what you do when you can, which means when you’re not earning a living, or loving a family, or doing the things that come first — even if work is ultimately more important. If you’d recognize the when factor, maybe you’d stop running all around the world looking for the where. When you’ve made some real peace with yourself, your old man and the white world, the where will fall back into its proper place; an [unintelligible] environment, and that’s all.

Love from Everyone,

SS/rs

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Dear Sol :

… I’ve been thinking over your last long letter to me — the one in which you tell me that ‘work is not a penalty’…

…I have it on the highest Western authority that this was exactly how it entered the world. ( see Genesis ). But, as a matter of fact, I agree that work is not a penalty, or cannot, in any case, be considered as one; yet, when you say that work is what you do when you can — when not earning a living, loving a family, ‘doing the things that come first’ — I’m lost. Suppose work is earning a living and also — faute de mieux, perhaps — loving a family, suppose work is first, simply because, for a particular life, nothing else can possibly come without it? What then? I don’t, myself, think that I’ve seriously considered work as a penalty, though I do consider it my only means of understanding the world, and, in fact — at the risk of causing you to gnash your teeth– my only means of feeling at home in the world. I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it. Voila. I’m not trying to be flippant. Think about it. And I insist on this a little out of consideration for our friendship : though I, personally, am sure that you will one day see me as safe and happy as any friend of mine could wish, this day will not be tomorrow and work, my friend, is my only means of bringing this day about. Please get over the notion, Sol, that there’s some place I’ll fit when I’ve made some ‘real peace’ with myself : the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it. You know and I know that the ‘peace’ of most people is nothing but torpor, and you also know that there is no such thing as an ‘external environment and that’s all’. An environment is also an inward reality, it’s one of the things which make you, it takes from you and it gives to you, facts which are suggested by the word itself. If I were trying to escape my environment, I wouldn’t be covering the earth to do it. The best way to escape one’s environment is to surrender to it. I, personally, am trying to understand mine, in which endeavor I may possibly be retarded — but I don’t think I”m romantic enough, any longer, to imagine that anything is ever escaped.

Well. All the above’s inadequate. We’ll pick it up over a drink sometime…

As ever,

Jimmy

Sol Stein, pictured here with photos of James Baldwin in the background

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