BECOMING AMERICANS IN PARIS: TRANSATLANTIC POLITICS AND CULTURE BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS by Brooke L.Blower
Oxford University Press. 354 pages. £22.50. ISBN 978-0-19-973781-9
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Paris in the 1920s. Well, of course, it's Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach's bookshop, expatriate drinkers, and little magazines that carried the message of modernism, and dozens of books have been written to tell the tales of literary experiments and entertaining escapades. It's all fascinating but in reality was just a small, if important, part of the total experience of the city in the period concerned. Paris, after all, is in France, so what were the French doing while the Americans lived it up? And were those artists and writers in Montparnasse the only Americans in town? Also, what was happening in the political arena? Most accounts have little or nothing to say about French politics but they did impact on the Americans in more ways than one.
The inter-war years saw the rise of confidence in what was said to be the "American way of life." As Brooke L.Blower puts it: "Before, Americans had looked to Europe for cultural models. Now, celebrating their own arts and traditions - cultivating self-consciously American styles and postures - they were becoming a more self-aware and integrated population while simultaneously building up their economic and political clout around the world." And she goes on to suggest that Paris became central to the way in which "modern American culture would be defined, and how Americans would be imagined as critical players in global affairs." To emphasise her thesis about Paris being more than just a location for a Hemingway novel she asserts: "All but forgotten are the thousands of businessmen, journalists, scholars and others who poured into Paris alongside the more famous expatriates. And beyond the artistic impact of musicians, painters, and writers, little attention has been paid to Americans' influence in the city or the ways in which Parisians protested their presence, sometimes violently." The number of permanent American residents rose from 8,000 in 1920 to 32,000 in 1923 and around 40,000 in the mid and late-Twenties These figures did not include tourists and special occasions such as when over 20,000 members of the American Legion held their convention in Paris in 1927.
To explode another myth, that of the Left Bank being where most Americans congregated, it's pointed out that the Right Bank was much more popular. The place de 1'Opera became "the prime reference point. This imposing square emerged during the 1920s as the main hub for the rapidly growing American colony - a nexus around which the grand hotels did a brisk transatlantic business, where tour buses lingered and scores of American companies set up shop." The financial benefits for the French capital are obvious and it's also significant that the Americans brought with them speciality goods and services previously unknown, or at least with little presence, in Paris. Not all Parisians welcomed the American influence which, they thought, led to the "French way of life" coming under threat. Blower reckons that reactions to foreigners, including Americans, "ranged widely from tolerance or more likely avoidance and indifference, to outright hostility." Some French writers went into print with lamentations for the decline of "the old Paris." André Warnod said: "Our guests, welcomed too eagerly, have spoken like masters and we have listened to them," meaning that things were becoming more and more Americanised.
There were allegations that the influx of foreigners (not only Americans, though they were probably the biggest and most obvious contingent) had driven up the cost of living: "There are too many of these parasites here, eating our food, drinking our wine, going untaxed, and paying ridiculously little for everything they consume, thanks to the exchange." The fall in the value of the franc meant that Americans benefited but Parisians suffered, and a spate of attacks on tourists took place along with demonstrations against manifestations of American culture. Magazines and newspapers ran articles which claimed that Paris was becoming "a copy of America" and the city was "a conquered land."
Critics attacked American films, seeing them as "potentially dangerous vehicles of cultural imperialism." And the American attitude towards eating and drinking horrified the French: "American customers threatened cherished routines - by demanding faster service, by promoting the abbreviated cocktail hour instead of the lingering aperitif, and, rather than adopting the protracted midday meal, by spreading the much-dreaded habit of the quick lunch."
The cultural clashes referred to, along with the currency problems, altered relations between many Americans and the French. American foreign policy also disturbed Parisians, especially when it meant helping to revive the German economy while pushing France into quicker repayment of its war debts. Large economic and political concerns combined with small matters relating to social habits to create a climate of anti-Americanism. It was this climate that allowed extremists from both right and left of the political spectrum to manipulate crowds into street action. All it required was a trigger and that was provided in 1927 by the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were convicted of an armed robbery in the USA during which two people were killed. The case had dragged on for several years and had attracted world-wide attention, and when they were finally put to death left-wing mobs took to the streets in Paris and a night of rioting followed, with hundreds of rioters and police injured and many arrests made. Restaurants and bars frequented by Americans were attacked and individual Americans seen on the streets were often targeted by the rioters.
If the Sacco and Vanzetti affair gave the left an opportunity to indulge in a display of anti-Americanism, the right, too, seized on an opportunity to oppose "the liberalism linked with Americans and the districts that catered to them." The Paris police were noted for their brutality and were controlled by a reactionary Prefect, Jean Chiappe. He decided to launch what Blower describes as "a purging or cleansing" of certain areas of the city, and she hints that behind this operation lay a suspicion of the "Americans' presence and the kinds of values they were believed to embody." Chiappe was quoted as saying that "fear of the police is the beginning of wisdom," and his purge was said to be for the benefit of decent, well-behaved citizens. His men focused on anyone seeming to be outside a norm established in Chiappe's mind. The working class were seen as a threat, especially if they were politically active on the left. Blower, alluding to Chiappe's right-wing associations, refers to his cultivation of "reactionary cultural politics" which opposed communists and the like and also meant that "right-wing activists like Chiappe could hold together in their minds a cluster of enemies, including foreigners, homosexuals, Jews, Americans, and other purported undesirables, all imagined as agents of an economic and cultural liberalism that would undermine the health of the nation." The police may have kept a close watch on working-class areas of Paris, but they paid equal attention to parts of Montmartre and Montparnasse where Chiappe saw "cosmopolitanism in turmoil."
Blower's account of the visit by well over 20,000 members of the American Legion in 1927 is particularly interesting. The Legion had been formed in Paris in 1919 when thousands of American servicemen were awaiting demobilisation. It established itself in America in the 1920s as an ultra-patriotic organisation that, its preamble said, aimed to "maintain law and order; to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism," and much more. It had some positive aspects, in that it "piloted civic improvement schemes, contributing to child welfare services and disaster relief efforts." But the Legion also tried to exert control over what was taught in schools, insisted on loyalty oaths, chased radicals out of town, intimidated journalists, and helped break strikes. When they decided to stage their convention in Paris they met with opposition from French left-wingers but were welcomed by conservative elements in the Government and business community. A planned parade down the Champs-Élysées, and a national holiday declared by the French Government for the opening day of the convention, particularly aroused the anger of communists, socialists, and anarchists. Blower works hard to indicate that the Legion had some disturbing similarities to aspects of European fascist movements like those in Italy and Germany, something that French left-wingers and American liberals were aware of. As she says, it wasn't an outright fascist organisation but "exhibited key fascist elements."
Not all Americans who lived in Paris were in favour of the Legion's visit, feeling that it would exacerbate anti-American sentiments. But, despite threats from the left, the parade passed off peacefully and, in fact, seemed to have entertained the crowds who watched it. It was hardly a militaristic display and was described as more of a carnival than a march. Blower's analysis of it is first-rate, though she comes to the conclusion that "the Legion's superficial lightheartedness and the group's potential as a dangerous political force were really two sides of the same coin." Americans who took part in the Legion's activities in Paris "acted out many Americans' growing belief that Europe was stagnant and inefficient, a region weighed down by cumbersome tradition, spent by the war, and burdened by out-of-control radicalism."
I mentioned at the start of this review that the expatriates (those usually identified with Paris in the 1920s and 1930s) were only one element in the American association with the city. And they were often condemned by other Americans for having, it was alleged, abandoned their native land and its problems and sought refuge in Paris where they could avoid involvement with anything other than the purely personal. According to Blower, since the publication of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, "expatriates have been stereotyped as escapists who selfishly renounced civic responsibilities, watching unscathed from afar the social conflicts of the post-war United States while at the same time maintaining distance from the vagaries of European affairs." And she proposes that the expatriates themselves helped perpetuate this myth when they wrote about their experiences in Paris after they'd returned to the United States and often were involved in radical politics.
The fact is, though, that people like Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Shirer, and Josephine Herbst, frequently travelled far beyond Paris and were aware of what was happening in the world generally. Hemingway, working as a journalist, covered events in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere, while Dos Passos also went to Greece and Turkey and into parts of the Soviet Union. As Blower says: "Casting themselves as radical sympathisers or noble partisans of democracy ready to take on the burdens and moral choices demanded by the period's popular politics, they modelled a deeply social and cosmopolitan sense of the engaged world participants Americans could be, an alternative to the bellicose versions of worldliness displayed in Paris by the veterans, casual tourists, or the Chamber of Commerce crowd." The journalist William Shirer covered wars and political turmoil in many countries, the black writer Langston Hughes visited Russia, as did Josephine Herbst and her husband, John Herrmann. I'm pulling just a few names out of the text to emphasise the point Blower makes, that the expatriates were much more aware of, and sometimes involved with, wider social and political matters than some accounts of their activities would have us believe.
Blower sums up by telling how, following the end of the Second World War, a kind of depoliticisation of Paris began to take over in depictions of the city. The 1951 film, An American in Paris, "showcased a Paris of timeless appeal and stock clichés: boulevard cafes, neighbourhood bistros, and - now the most important icon of the city for Americans - the Eiffel Tower." She also says that, in various films, "Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by Manet, Degas, or Toulouse-Lautrec became crowd-pleasing vehicles for celebrating the city in purely aesthetic terms," probably because such paintings did not seem related to any kind of art (surrealism, for example) that "smacked of the factious interwar political scene." Blower mentions a "depoliticised epilogue" in a reprint of Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return, originally published in 1934, and she adds that Hemingway's A Moveable Feast "stripped the city of its shrill newspaper headlines, its refugees, its rampaging policemen." According to her: "This sanitised version of Americans' place in the capital appealed at mid-century because it resonated so well with the intellectual and social preoccupations of the age." Disillusionment with communism and the rise of McCarthyism meant that "many quietly buried their past associations of their more adventurous days of youth." The real Paris of the 1920s and 1930s was forgotten and in its place appeared the mythical one that it suited later generations to believe in.
Becoming Americans in Paris is an important book and adds an extra dimension to what we know about the city and the Americans who spent time there. It's well-researched, has a good bibliography, and is written in a style that never bogs down in jargon.