Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our First France-basher?

     Of all the famous American writers with footsteps to follow in Paris, Mark Twain ranks way down on the list.  Hemingway wore the biggest shoes, of course, and his trail can still be picked up almost anywhere.  The other day a French colleague of mine was explaining where to meet to hear another colleague sing Irish songs, and naturally she used him as her reference point.  "It's called Le Swan," she said.  "Like the bird.  It's easy to find because it's right next to La Closerie des Lilas--you know, the Hemingway place." Well, a Hemingway place anyway--one of the many where he liked to boire un p'tit coup.  Take a walking tour of his Parisian haunts and you could end up cooling your talons in the gendarmerie.
But long before, and ever since, he and Stein and Toklas left their modernist mark on literature, American writers have been coming to Paris to see what all the fuss is about.  As soon as James Fenimore Cooper became rich and famous from The Last of the Mohicans, where did he head?  To Paris, where he decamped with his entire family and created a haven for other ex-pats. Emerson visited the National Museum of National History in Paris and was inspired to write Nature, his essay laying the foundation of transcendentalism.   Henry James was fluent in French from childhood and tried out the City of Light before deciding to settle in England.  James Baldwin sought an escape from racism, Edith Wharton saw the outbreak of World War I, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller did, well, everything they did—all in Paris.  Harriet Beecher Stowe found anti-slavery compatriots here, F. Scott Fitzgerald found “the  best of America,” and David Sedaris found his pretty tongue. But that’s just scratching the surface.  For those interested, there are countless books by and about American writers in Paris; two current ones worth a look are Adam Gopnick's Paris to the Moon, which tells the story of his own five years here, and his Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, with pieces by writers from Thomas Jefferson to James Thurber to May Sarton.
  Twain makes an appearance in that collection, but don’t take it to mean that he loved, or even liked, the place that has been turning American heads and hearts for centuries.  In his contrarian way, Twain came to hate Paris—more precisely, he came to hate the French.  No pining after misty nights on the Seine for him, certainly not if he had to share them with people who were, well, Parisian. Twain was somewhat disappointed even on his first trip here in 1867.  During that visit, he went to the Paris Exposition, a world’s fair that drew as many as 15 million visitors and sent most of them away happy.  Not Twain, really.  For him, it was the start of something bad.  By the end of his life, he'd become so thoroughly disgusted by the French that he called his bias against them was his only “race prejudice.”  How that bias came to be--and how it has affected American attitudes about the French--is the subject of this blog.  For six months, as a Fulbright scholar in Paris, I'm going to retrace his footsteps here (while trying to leave a few of my own)—literally and literarily—in an effort to figure out why our most famous American writer came to loathe the place that so many other famous writers have loved.

Samuel Morse--of telegraph code fame--first tried his hand as a painter in Paris, where he was befriended by James Fenimore Cooper.  Morse's painting Gallery of the Louvre shows Cooper and his wife Susan at left and their daughter Sue in the center, taking a painting lesson from Morse himself.


  1. It will be interesting what you find out, looking forward to it!

  2. Cool! Can't wait to read more my friend! Wish I was there to walk with you....enjoy....marche bien!!