Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

I See France: Priorities in Nonfiction

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

I See France: Priorities in Nonfiction

Article excerpt

You would like this town. It's full of liquor, amusing people & incredibly beautiful works of art.

--Stephen Vincent Benet, 1920 (qtd. in Bradbury 331)

The twentieth century saw successive waves of American writers on France, from James and Wharton to the so-called lost generation of Stein, Hemingway, Miller, Fitzgerald, et al. in the twenties and thirties, and on to the post-World War II generation of James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Irwin Shaw, and black expatriates like Wright, Baldwin, and Himes. There were also of course several decades of New Yorker "Letters from Paris" by Janet Flanner, succeeded by Jane Kramer's "Letters from Europe." Journalists, chroniclers, memoirists, writers of fiction, they came from the ranks of the rich and the struggling, the traveler and the expatriate, the artist and the alcoholic, the pilgrim and the exile, the new American woman and the ex-GI. Depending on the individual and the moment, they came to Paris seeking culture, a strong dollar and easy alcohol, sexual and racial tolerance, modernism, a context appreciative of the writer's craft and the arts in general. They sought what they could not find in America: a non-America and often an anti-America. Their subject could be American failings, observations on France and the French, cultural clashes, American identity, writing itself.

We seem of late to be in the midst of a new flowering of American writing on France, with upward of 50 novels, personal narratives, and sets of essays published in the last 10 to 15 years. This writing contrasts strikingly with that of earlier generations, firmly ensconced in the American colony and using English as the lingua franca and America as the culture of reference. According to Dennis Porter,

   the challenge thrown down to the traveler is to prove himself
   worthy by means of an experience adequate to the reputation of
   a hallowed site. If he is a writer, he will be in the even more
   exposed position of having to add something new and recognizably
   his own to the accumulated testimony of his predecessors.

In nonfiction at least, this latest generation appears far more concerned with seeking out an authenticity and a cultural specificity increasingly laminated at home by American standardization, a kind of terroir that is a link to an earlier time. (1) Unlike so many of their predecessors, they aim to demonstrate a certain level of achievement on French terms, in a France whose difference represents a specific and culturally demanding environment, and so they set out to learn French or master French cooking or fix up an old French house. While there is some obvious overlap here with French residences secondaires, according to Urbain these involve the pursuit of a nonurban environment, a pursuit that does not in fact aspire to local integration. The Americans, on the other hand, are engaged in constructing both new self-knowledge and a second cultural identity: they try to "belong:' They make little or no mention of the irony inherent in the fact that the very globalization they flee has also made that flight easier, or the risk that publicizing one's new cultural home may draw others to the same endeavor, so that the second culture loses the very difference for which it was originally sought out. (2)

I examine here three of the latest generation of writings about France, all published in the same year at the very end of the century. (3) Gopnik's Paris to the Moon is a compilation of 19 New Yorker "Letters from Paris" written between 1995 and 2000, with a new introduction and four new chapters. David Sedaris incorporated nine chapters on France, five of which were previously run elsewhere, into the 28 chapters of Me Talk Pretty One Day. Michael Lewis's "I See France" was a series of 23 online dispatches from January to July 2000, of which 19 dealt with being in France. They have not been collected subsequently. Despite their considerable differences in length, these pieces are comparable generically as topical personal writing done initially for a specific audience (readers of Esquire, the New Yorker, and Slate. …

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