James Baldwin visited Löeche-les-Bains, a village in the Swiss Alps, three times between 1950 and 1953. It was there that he finished his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and wrote one of his groundbreaking essays, “Stranger in the Village,” both published in 1953.
Invited there by his lover, the Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in Paris and whose family owned a small chalet there, Baldwin needed to get away from the distractions of Paris. In addition to being able to write undisturbed in Löeche-les-Bains, he also experienced a semblance of home life with a partner for the first time in his writing life.
In the early 1950s, the simple and harsh rural life in the village had still been dictated by the rhythm of the seasons, hardly changed since the seventeenth century. Happersberger managed to get a little money from his father to pay their modest living expenses; their chalet was small but cozy and contained a small room that became Baldwin’s writing den. While remote, the place was filled with wintry whiteness: of snow, sky, and the villagers. As he writes in “Stranger in the Village,” “It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro.”
Baldwin adds that their isolation from the distractions of Paris was nearly complete: “In the village there is no movie house, no bank, no library, no theater; very few radios, one Jeep, one station wagon; and, at the moment, one typewriter, mine, an invention which the woman next door to me here had never seen.” At first, he regarded his remoteness from the United States and other African Americans as irreconcilable cultural and geographic difference, or “a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born.”
The isolation of the village enabled Baldwin to think hard, virtually for the first time, about his position as a black American in the West and in the world. When he walked the streets of Löeche-les-Bains, local children would remind him of being a “living wonder” in their midst by surreptitiously touching his skin and hair. This notice taken of his body “by some daring creature” made Baldwin reflect on the difference “between the [village] children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted Nigger! yesterday—the abyss is experience, the American experience.” He also “knew that they did not mean to be unkind, and I know it now.” This is a challenging mental switch he learned to master during his presence there: “it is necessary ... for me to repeat this to myself every time that I walk out of the chalet. The children who shout Neger! have no way of knowing the echoes this sound raises in me. They are brimming with good humor and the more daring swell with pride when I stop to speak to them.” Those days, however, are interspersed with ones when he feels angry and resentful, recalling the racism of his home country.
The essay “Stranger in the Village” is also a profound personal and political meditation on the exceptional place of African peoples in the Diaspora. From that moment on, Baldwin shifted his authorial lens to black Americans’ complex place and presence amidst the decolonizing world. As Happersberger recalls in an interview in 2007, “In [Löeche-les-Bains] Baldwin could see what culture and knowledge could do ... [that] these people are victims of their culture” given their shocking annual custom of “buying” Africans for the faith through donations to the local Catholic church. Being there was a “key moment for him,” he recalls, “he saw how much he was a modern human being, and they were in the middle ages.” To Happersberger, Baldwin was an intellectual genius who took measure of the “little people” around him, and who used them as literary material. Aware that he was also sized up by them as the first African American in the village, he deployed all of the perspectives he encountered in the “Stranger in the Village.” This revolutionary essay not only explores racialized bodies and spaces between Harlem and Löeche-les-Bains, but also creates a bold new space for African Diaspora intellectuals like Baldwin.
Happersberger, who was in charge of the domestic life and cooking, remembers vividly the moment when Baldwin’s novel was finished. One day he heard Jimmy punching out loudly the final six letters of Go Tell It On The Mountain—“THE END.” Amid the wintry alpine landscape, surrounded by white faces of the villagers, Baldwin’s typewriter, manuscript, and Bessie Smith and Fats Waller records were the only reminders of his homeland. Still, he needed that kind of isolation, and the love and peaceful domesticity he experienced in Switzerland to be able to do his work. The need for spaces like that remained with him for the rest of his writing life.