An American in Paris
What do you think about when hear the phrase, an American in Paris? Perhaps the 1951 Vincente Minnelli film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron? Or George Gershwin’s music of the same name? I know that I do. Then there’s Ernest Hemingway and his expatriate friends in the 1920s. There were African American authors and jazz musicians who lived in Paris to avoid American racism. It usually creates a romantic image in my mind, somewhat like what Woody Allen created in his 2011 homage to Paris, Midnight in Paris. It makes me want to take a stroll along the banks of the Seine and stop at a brasserie for a late lunch. Americans have been going to Paris for more than two centuries. It wasn’t always this romantic. Let’s take a stroll through Project MUSE.
William L. Chew III, “Yankees Caught in the Crossfire: The Trials and Travails of Americans in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France”, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, v. 32 (2003) informs us that early Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, were confronted by unpaid American debts to France for financial aid in our war for independence with Great Britain, anti-American public opinion, as well as diplomatic tension between France and Great Britain. The Minister of Police in 1797 considered revoking the residence permits of Americans living in Paris and also denying residence to any persons claiming birth in the United States.
Nancy L. Green, “Comparative Gaze: Travelers in France before the Era of Mass Tourism”, French Historical Studies, v. 25, no. 3 (2002) examines the experiences of three travelers to France between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Best known is the American chronicler of gilded age New York, Edith Wharton, who settled in Paris in 1907 and died in France in 1937. She was the most enthusiastic traveler discussed in this article. Green notes the change in the opinions of visitors as their stay in France lengthens.
The New England Review has recently published (v. 37, no. 1 (2016) an early account by Edith Wharton of life in Paris during World War I, “Paris in Wartime: February, 1915”. She writes about the refugees on the streets and wounded soldiers in theaters and concert halls.
Ernest Hemingway stopped in Paris briefly in 1918 while en route to Italy to volunteer as an ambulance driver, returned to the United States, then lived in Paris from late 1921 through 1928. This period of the young writer’s life is covered by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, “When Hemingway Hated Paris: Divorce Proceedings, Contemplations of Suicide, and the Deleted Chapters of The Sun Also Rises”, Studies in the Novel, v. 44, no. 1 (Spring 2012). Herlihy-Mera recounts the unpublished author’s mood swings from early happiness to depression as complaints about the culture and weather. Unpublished chapters of The Sun Also Rises feature “expatriate depression.”
Students of 20th century American literature know about the friendship between Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and fellow expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy. Linda Patterson Miller details their relationship in two articles in Studies in American Fiction, ”Gerald Murphy and Ernest Hemingway: Part I”, v. 12, no. 2 (Aug. 1984) and “Gerald Murphy and Ernest Hemingway: Part II”, v. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1985). This includes the period when Hemingway separated from and divorced his first wife, Hadley, and married his second wife, Pauline.
Among the other Americans in interwar Paris were African Americans, including Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith. I’m familiar with Baker as a dancer in 1920s Paris, but am unfamiliar with Smith. Katherine Groo, “Shadow Lives: Josephine Baker and the Body of Cinema”, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, v. 54, no. 1 (Spring 2013) extends my knowledge of Baker to include her work in motion pictures. Specifically, Gross writes about the three films La Sirène des tropiques (1927), Zou Zou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935).
Ada “Bricktop” Smith was only one of several other African American women in interwar Paris. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (State University of New York Press, 2015) discusses several African American women who were in Paris at the same time as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other expatriates of the “lost generation”. Some of these women are known to me already, Jessie Fauset, Alberta Hunter, Nella Larsen, Eslanda Goode Robeson, but many other are new to me, Selma Burke, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills, and Nancy Prophet.
The first half of Sharpley-Whiting’s book is nonfiction, but the second half is a murder mystery written as autobiographical fiction by Sharpley-Whiting entitled, The Autobiography of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Or Miss Baker Regrets. Bricktop Smith is joined by other real life expatriates, black and white, especially Josephine Baker in this fictional work.
Gertrude Stein had lived in Paris for more than 30 years at the outbreak of World War II and stayed in France during the war. Three articles in Project MUSE over a period of 20 years discussed the charge that Stein was a fascist. She began translating a book of Pétain’s speeches, but stopped when she was more than half way through the book. What do these unpublished translations tell us about Stein’s political views? Wanda Van Dusen, “Portrait of a National Fetish: Gertrude Stein’s “Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain” (1942)”, Modernism/modernity, v. 3, no. 3 (Sept. 1996) was the first to write about Stein’s unfinished project. Stein’s English translation of Pétain’s Introduction follows Van Dusen’s article. Barbara Will, “Lost in Translation: Stein’s Vichy Collaboration”, Modernism/modernity, v. 11, no. 4 (Nov. 2004) followed a few years later. Rachel Calvin, “Gertrude Stein, Pétain, and the Politics of Translation”, ELH, v. 83, no. 1 (Spring 2016) is the most recent article on the subject.
I began this trip through Paris with a host of American visitors and expatriates with the romantic image of Paris that was portrayed in the 1951 Academy Award winning film, An American in Paris. Jack L.B. Gohn, “Replace, Revive, Repopulate”, Hopkins Review, v. 9, no. 2 (Spring 2016) uses the occasion of a recent Broadway revival to write about what the film got wrong. To begin with, MGM’s picture of Paris was too rosy when compared to a Europe still struggling to recover from the devastation of the war. Gohn prefers the 1949 film, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Welles for a more accurate view of postwar Europe.
The history of the American experience in Paris wasn’t always romantic, but a walk along the Seine with a stop at a brasserie is still a thrill, as I recently experienced. Even if you can’t go yourself, you can still stroll through Paris with Project MUSE.