The “American student colony” of Paris is hard to describe, despite the fact that almost all of these students share the experience of having served in the war. Military service is the defining experience of an entire generation of men, and has surely had a different impact on each of them. The question of why Americans in Paris have chosen to stay in Europe instead of returning home is also far from clear. Baldwin suspects that it is not love of French history or culture that brings Americans to study in Paris, nor the promise of better teaching than they would find in the States. Baldwin argues that American students tend to cling to an image of Paris they have been taught through film, and they thereby delay discovering the city as it really is. Myths state that people lose their “heads and morals” in Paris, bathing in the city’s atmosphere of freedom. However, Baldwin argues that these myths have little to do with reality.
Baldwin’s exploration of the experience of American students in Paris is something of a departure from the rest of the book in that it is not based on his own experience or on issues of race and racism. At the same time, this chapter explores the same themes that occur in the rest of the book, including truth, delusion, intimacy, alienation, identity, and homelessness. His exploration of the reason why people come to Paris suggests that people’s motivations are often not even clear to them. They seek an image or myth of Paris that does not necessarily correspond to reality, but that still contains meaning—at least to the Americans who believe in it.
Baldwin notes that it is easy to adore Paris while disliking the French, who tend to keep foreigners “at an unmistakable arm’s length.” Parisians tend to have little interest in the foreigners who live among them, and also tend to have less desire for the freedom and irresponsibility that Americans so enthusiastically exploit. Americans dislike being seen as indistinguishable from their countrymen, but this objection makes little sense to the French. For some Americans, the experience of freedom becomes so overwhelming that they begin to long for “the prison of home.” At this point, the American develops a perverse sense of enthusiasm about the United States, which comes to him just as easily as his initial rejection of his country.
Baldwin’s description of the Americans who come to Paris only to fall back in love with America is amusing. Although Baldwin gently mocks the speed with which some Americans flee from the overwhelming freedom Paris presents, he is also sympathetic to their experience. He suggests that this journey of self-discovery is a necessary and even noble process, even if it can cause people to end up running black to the place in which they started.
Baldwin also considers the case of American students who adapt perfectly to the French lifestyle, cut off all ties to the United States, and live with a French family engaging in all the same activities as a truly French person. Yet Baldwin contends that these students actually hardly know more about France than those who do not assimilate to French culture at all. They remain entrenched in stereotypes about France, and even if they have many French friends this does not help them access the reality of France, as these friends remain an undifferentiated “mob.” Baldwin concludes that overall, most American students in Paris eventually lose a sense of their own personalities, and lose respect for other people’s personalities at the same time. In their confusion, they lose sight of the task of understanding themselves and the way in which all people are products of their environments. Europe presents a singular opportunity to “discover” the United States and end the sense of alienation from themselves that all Americans, on some level, feel.
Baldwin’s final comment about discovering America from Europe puts a clever twist on the narrative of Europeans “discovering” America. Now that the United States has long since been established and taken on characteristics of its own, Americans must return to Europe in order to “discover” their own identity. On a more serious level, this corresponds to Baldwin’s repeated insistence that people reckon with the past in order to move forward with their lives and create positive change in the future. Only through understanding their differences from Europeans can Americans uncover an honest and accurate sense of themselves.