Menace in the West: The Rise of French Anti-Americanism in Modern Times

By David Strauss | Go to book overview

chapter 12
American Authors

There is more to America than "bootleggers" and "Babbitts."

--H. C. de Courcy-May, 1931

In 1930, the Swedish Academy for the first time gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to an American author; the award recognized not only the work of Sinclair Lewis, but also the achievements of a whole generation of American writers. In choosing Lewis for the prize, the academy, like French critics in the three preceding years, called attention to the wholesale assault on American culture which these writers had undertaken since World War I.1 The work of H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, and to a lesser extent Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson, naturally appealed to French observers of the United States who were themselves distressed with American materialism, standardization, and the rise of racial conflict. The opinions of these native Americans reassured Frenchmen that their own views were not merely the product of cultural chauvinism. As Georges Lecomte, a member of the French Academy, explained, "Mr. Sinclair Lewis thinks and speaks exactly like our own Georges Duhamel." Indeed, the Figaro poll of French intellectuals specifically directed respondants to evaluate the views of Mencken, Lewis, Frank, and other American authors.2

The correlation between the reliance on America's social critics and the acceptance of anti-American beliefs in France can be established in several ways. It is important to note that Mencken, Lewis, Frank, and company were rarely cited by French observers before 1927, and their comprehensive indictment of American society was

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