The Way We Were (and Weren't)
“Paris in the 1920s was like San Francisco in the 1960s. It was just the place to be,” says Brooke Blower, an assistant professor of history and author of Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture, published this year by Oxford University Press.
Among the American authors and painters who found their way to Paris, says Blower, are a number of surprises. It turns out that Walker Evans, famous for his iconic photographs of the Great Depression, first started taking pictures in Paris. And that Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt, his satire of American Midwestern culture, while in France—which is also where F. Scott Fitzgerald finished The Great Gatsby.
“Paris was an exciting but also dark and volatile place after World War I.”Brooke Blower
“Even Grant Wood,” says Blower, “the regionalist painter famous for American Gothic”—the instantly recognizable painting of an unsmiling couple standing with a pitchfork in front of a farmhouse—“had the epiphany that led him to paint that way during an apprenticeship in Paris.”
It’s all part of what Blower sees as the untold story of Americans in Paris after World War I. Usually, she says, scholars of the period “focus on a few famous ‘expatriates’: Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein.” They also tend to portray Paris “as a place where Americans went to be free” from the perceived sexism, racism, and cultural narrow-mindedness of the United States at the time.
But Blower argues that these depictions of Paris as a liberal, open-minded city tell us more about Americans than France. For an African American writer, for instance, going abroad offered a chance to critique Jim Crow laws. But in doing so, one had to play down “the fact that France was then a colonial empire with its own racial inequalities,” says Blower, whose next book project will focus on Americans abroad during World War II, with research support from a Peter Paul Professional Development Award. “It’s a rhetorical strategy to say that you’re free in Paris, but it hides a greater complexity, which we can only discover by unearthing the French side of the story, to see Americans through their hosts’ eyes as well as through their own.”
In fact, she continues, “Paris was an exciting but also dark and volatile place after World War I.” There was a great deal of political conflict, which Americans never fully escaped, and a surprising amount of anti-Americanism. An influx of foreigners—including 40,000 American residents and as many as 400,000 American tourists visiting each year—led to “a lot of hand-wringing about Paris losing its ‘French’ character and absorbing these new languages and people.”
Part of the tension stemmed from the fact that unlike previous generations of Americans in Paris, who tried to be “cultural chameleons,” Americans in the 1920s weren’t trying to blend in. “They were brash and bold,” says Blower. “I always think of the difference between a Winterbourne [from the Henry James novel Daisy Miller] and Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Winterbourne would be so excited to be mistaken for some Swiss aristocrat. Rick Blaine is just as comfortable abroad as Winterbourne, he’s able to navigate the world of foreign politics, but he’s unmistakably American. He’s got this crisp, white suit, he talks with a Brooklyn accent.”
Of course, adds Blower, “what gets counted as ‘American’ in this period is something we shouldn’t take for granted.” For example, neon lights, cinema, and the automobile were all invented in France, but they were recast as symbols of American intrusion, while a more rustic version of “Frenchness” began to crystallize (think baguettes and bicycles).
“Now, looking back, the neon streetscape is imagined as the quintessential American urban landscape from this period,” says Blower. “But this wasn’t inevitable. These classic icons had to be made to be American. And this is the moment when people on both sides of the Atlantic begin to talk about that, to define Americanness and decide what modern American power and culture were about.”