Good Morning, America!
American writers catch a lot of hell when they leave the country. Take the case of Washington Irving, who moved to England after the war of 1812. It’s not like he had much of a choice; there was no chance of him surviving as a New York merchant in the aftermath of the war, and so like so many other young people who have run out of options, he decided to become a writer. Usually that’s a pretty disastrous decision, but it worked out for Irving for a while. In fact, he got so comfortable in Europe he stayed away for seventeen years, and that was his big mistake. When he finally came home, James Fennimore Cooper, our great chronicler of the Indians, who never actually met an Indian, started calling him a phony, which would be enough to undo anyone. Irving spent the rest of his career writing Westerns and biographies of the Founding Fathers, and so it’s fair to say he didn’t really survive the experience of coming back home.
Or consider the American Left Bank writers of the 1920s and 30s: they were duly declared lost, and after that, no one really went looking for them. Fitzgerald was popular as a New York jazz age writer, but as soon as he went to Paris, people forgot all about him. Only Hemingway figured out how to do it right: he treated his time abroad as an exercise in American Exceptionalism, fighting in as many foreign wars as possible and playing the bullheaded American abroad wherever he could, which is what’s generally expected of an American abroad, and is more or less representative of our post World War II foreign policy anyway. But most importantly, Hemingway knew he had to stay front and center in the American media, because for Americans, that’s pretty much the same thing as staying in the country. But that takes its toll, too, and no one wants their biography to end the way Hemingway’s does.
Black writers have had the worst of it. Baldwin caught so much hell for going to Paris and Istanbul, he had to switch from the writer who wrote “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, a bitter denunciation of the protest novel, to America’s most enthusiastic and vocal protest novelist and political pamphleteer. That honor might have gone to Richard Wright, but he was such a nuisance abroad that the CIA saw fit to do away with him, a murder never investigated by the black community at large, which just goes to show that black American writers who go abroad are really just a general annoyance to everybody everywhere.
Which is just to say that if Richard Wright couldn’t survive Eisenhower by running off to France, what chance does anyone have of surviving Trump, anywhere in the world? Especially writers, who have an obligation to oppose just the kind of demagogue we’re facing? And Trump has made everyone a writer; Twitter’s registration went up so much after he was elected, their stock market value increased by 4%, while the rest of the market was plunging. It’s as if everyone’s trying, like Irving, to write themselves out of the nightmare. It’s a step in the right direction, but watch out! There’s always a Fennimore Cooper waiting around the corner for your ass. I’m a black writer writing from Germany. The same shit is going down here; flight is absurd. And there’s nowhere to hide. So channel your inner Hemingway, but temper it with Baldwin; it’s time to fight.