Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Little Context Around That Lost Generation

"Migration produces diasporas, and diasporas produce migration:  which is the chicken and which is the egg?"

Paul Collier
Exodus

Migration also produces myths.  There are the historical facts and then there are the narratives produced by the homeland, the host country and the diasporas themselves that are offered as explanations for why they left, why they came and why they stayed.

One of the most powerful narratives in the history of Americans emigration is the exodus of American writers from the United States to the city of Paris in the period between the two world wars of the 20th century. They were called "The Lost Generation" by Gertrude Stein and the name stuck.

It was the Lost Generation's autobiographies and the media attention around their activities, and not academic studies, that created the story around this migration which goes something like this:   In the 1920's and '30's Americans writers fleeing puritanism, industrialization,  and the lack of appreciation for their art in the U.S. found a home in Paris, a city of artists and intellectuals, where one could survive on very little thanks to a favorable exchange rate.  Better to be hungry in the Luxembourg Garden, said Henry Miller, than in Central Park, New York.

These are inspiring tales of starving artists and the bohemian life which, for the most part, have happy endings. Most of these writers returned to the U.S. and commercial success.  Their stories sold and sold well.   Still do.

But were they true tales or fairy tales?

In 2008 Daniel Gallagher, a graduate student at L'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III, successfully defended his doctoral thesis:  Les écrivains américains à Paris entre les deux guerres : les conditions économiques et sociales de leur expatriation (American Writers in Paris between the Two Wars:  the Social and Economic Conditions of Their Expatriation) which became this book:


In his thesis and book Gallagher challenges some of the basic premises of the standard narrative about these American expatriates.  He asks the all-important (and, oh so obvious, question), "But are they true?"  Even better Gallagher puts these writers in context - the French context (what was going on in France at that time) and places them firmly in the middle of the American "colony" in Paris at that time - a community of which these writers and artists were a very small minority

Why They Came:  The Myth of Paris as a Cheap Place to Live:  Anyone who lives in the Paris region these days knows quite well that the cost of living is quite high and decent affordable apartments are hard to find in the city center.  Gallagher argues that 1920's Paris was not much different.  It was not cheap to live there even for those with dollars in their pockets and a favorable exchange rate.   Housing was scarce, rents were high and inflation ate away at every one's purchasing power (foreigners and French alike).  How scarce?  In 1924, the city of Paris prepared to rent 300 apartments they had built to relieve the housing shortage. For these apartments the city received 46,000 applications.

The paucity of housing and the high cost of living was, after the war, one of the primary preoccupations of residents in France after 1919.   So many tourists complained that the city of Paris in 1921 promised to intervene on their behalf.   

Gallagher shows that there were other  European destinations that were much less expensive for Americans  like Germany.  If economic considerations were one of the Old Continent's main attractions, then why didn't these Americans follow the money and go where they could get the most bang for their buck?  Gallagher argues that the cost of living argument was a pretext - a "bonne excuse" - and there were other, much more compelling (but far less romantic) reasons for Americans to come to the City of Light.

How They Were Perceived in France:  American writers of this period (notably Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway) were free with their opinions about Paris, France and the French but how did the French themselves regard them?  As we saw above Paris was not particularly cheap for residents and American tourists were often surfacturé (over billed) because they were perceived as being rich.  Gallagher says that many French at the time had two reasons not to love the Americans in their midst.  The first is that they were seen as the root cause of the high cost of living:
On en a voulu aux Américains pour la hausse des prix en France, premièrement parce qu'ils étaient assez nombreux et que leur pouvoir d'achat par rapport aux autres expatriés - notamment les Italiens, les Russes et les Polonais - était très élevé.
(They blamed Americans for the rise in prices in France, first because there were many of them and because their purchasing power was high compared to other expatriates, notably the Italians, the Russians and the Poles.)
The second was the issue of the French debt incurred during the First World War.  The United States expected repayment of the money it loaned to European countries (around 180 billion in today's dollars).  The French did not agree and deeply resented American efforts to collect.   

As economic conditions worsened for the average French, this simmering resentment spilled over into action.  In 1926, Gallagher says, 6 American tour buses were emptied during a riot and the police had to step in to protect them.  The situation was so bad that it reached the top leaders in both countries:  the French president called in the Paris police chief to ask him to protect American tourists, and the American president sent a mild but public threat to the French saying that if Americans were not treated correctly in France, they could always return home and spend their money in the U.S.

So 1920's France was not always hospitable for Americans, a community that was very visible and occasionally vulnerable to host country hostility.  It is telling that the best the American lawmakers could do at the time to protect Americans in France was to make speeches against the "unjust and unjustified attacks."

The American Community in France:  Reading the autobiographies of Americans in Paris about this period one might have the impression that American artists and writers were everywhere and constituted the bulk of U.S. expatriates in that city.  Gallagher shows that there were actually two American communities in Paris:  there were the writers and artists who were the darling of the American media and there was another, much larger population, made up of American businessmen.  What was the connection between the two?  Gallagher argues that the infrastructure that was built to meet the needs of the latter made it possible for the former to live in Paris.

After the First World War the French government invited many American companies to start companies and invest in the Hexagon. There was nothing haphazard about their arrival - American companies benefited from the "encouragement" and sometimes outright assistance, of both the home and the host country governments. Along with the companies came their personnel and their families. How many?  According to Gallagher around 42,000 in 1924 - a figure that would drop precipitously in 1926 because, he argues, of French tax policy toward foreigners.  It was, he says, the largest American expatriate community in Europe at the time.

Of those 40,000+ U.S. citizens very few were writers or artists.  Gallagher quotes sources that indicate that they were perhaps a few hundred creatives in a sea of tens of thousands of businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals who are very rarely mentioned in those autobiographies that purport to define the quintessential "American in Paris" experience at the time.

 The businessmen were there first, the Americans creatives came later and relied on, Gallagher contends, the infrastructure and networks that were built for those who came for commerce. Clubs, churches, hospitals, schools, the library (1921), American university associations, as well as:

"The Men's Get-Together Club; Troop One;  Paris Boy Scouts of America; National Councils of the YMCA of the US and Canada; Old Colony Club of France, Order of the Cincinnati-French Section;  Quartermaster's Association;  Sons of the American Revolution - Empire State Society;  The Association of American Volunteers with the French Army 1914-1917 et The Lafayette Escadrille....."

In the mid-1920's Gallagher finds 27 Americans dentists and 44 American lawyers practicing in Paris.  In 1920, he says, the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris had 550 members which dropped to 8 in 1941.  All this activity meant jobs for the less fortunate Americans in Paris:  jobs as secretaries, translators, teachers, professors, journalists and the like.  This work did not require that an American be integrated into French society since much of the work was in English and the workplace culture was American.  

In addition to providing a means of making a living, this infrastructure was also a safety net.  If an American fell ill in France, for example, there was the American Hospital (which in the beginning was exclusively for the American community).  Even Henry Miller preferred to be treated there as opposed to going to a French hospital or clinic.  

Gallagher's conclusions fly in the face of everything we think we know about Americans in Paris in the 1920's and '30's.  It wasn't about the cost of living or the exchange rate, says Gallagher, nor does he think that it had much to do with being misunderstood at home or Prohibition or any of the other standard reasons for the exodus of American creatives.

 A much more plausible explanation, he says, is that American writers of this period "sont allées à Paris parce que des Américains se trouvaient déjà dans la capitale, et que Paris ressemblait plus a l'Amérique qu'aucune autre ville en dehors des Etats-Unis" (went to Paris because there were already Americans in the capital and because Paris ressembled America more than any other city outside the United States) at that time.

If what Gallagher says is true then why hasn't someone before this debunked the myth of the "American in Paris"? I'd say because so many have an interest in perpetuating it.  For the French it promotes the idea of Paris as an intellectual and artistic center and it allows them contrast their society with that of the United States (to the latter's detriment).  The portrait many American emigrants past and present paint of France conforms beautifully to how many French want their country to be portrayed:  as something special, mysterious, less materialistic, less modern, more rural, more interested in the good life as opposed to the mere making of money, and fighting the good fight against mondialisation (wasn't that once called Americanization?) And it occurs to me as I write this that French conservatives need look no farther for agreement on certain fundamental ideas about France than the writing of American expatriates living here.

For Americans in the homeland, those who would emigrate or those who simply want to vicariously live the experience through the many books, blogs, and articles about life in France,  it is a narrative that does not in any way challenge the American way of life.  After all, once the Lost Generation had their fun, almost all returned home as did the American businessmen, their families, and the students.

Lastly, those who did leave the U.S. for France may have the most to gain from the myth.  It is still a means of making a living.  It still confers cultural capital that is good long after the adventure is over.  Vestiges of the infrastructure that served Americans in France so well in the early 20th century are still around:  The American Church, the American Library, Paris AA and many other institutions have made it into the 21st century and are still the core of this "colony" which has been estimated at between 50,000 and 75,000 residents today. 

Back in November Mike Manson wrote this thoroughly enjoyable post:   Why I’m Wrong About Everything (And So Are You) and he invited his reader to "Assume that you’re wrong — about everything. See where that takes you."  That is precisely what Daniel Gallagher did for his doctoral thesis - he questioned the premises behind this period of American emigration - everything that we presumed to know about the Lost Generation - and it led him to some very interesting places.  

I have to say that I enjoyed this book very much, though a twinge went through me as I read the final chapter - it wounded (if not outright killed) the romance of this era for me for all time.  I urge you to read it with an open mind - an "assume you're wrong" mentality - and let Gallagher repaint the picture for you.

And then, once you've read it, open your mind a little further and question what you think you know about Americans living in Paris today.  That, mes amis, just might make an even better book...

3 comments:

bubblebustin said...

Sounds as though these Americans in Paris lived in a bubble, which modern day American emigrants for the most part are still enjoying - that is until CBT enforced by FATCA bursts it.

It's funny to read how the "American president sent a mild but public threat to the French saying that if Americans were not treated correctly in France, they could always return home and spend their money in the U.S.", when today it's the current US president who's the biggest threat to the lives of American emigrants in the world.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Absolutely, bubblebustin. That bubble is one that many expatriates from many countries live in where there is a large enough population to support a kind of community within the larger community. The French in Japan, for example. Not everyone lived in it but there was a kind of community there with institutions and help - they had their own school and the equivalent of a chamber of commerce and stuff like that.

I imagine that other examples abound. No value judgement here - I think choosing to live that way while abroad has some advantages especially if the family is definitely looking at it as a short-term thing.

It can also be interesting where there is an international community - one that isn't necessarily tied to one country but where many expats from all over congregate and know each other. These can be very interesting worlds because there is actually more exposure to multiple cultures and languages then if one went the path of integrating into the host country culture.

Anonymous said...

I do not know why Gallagher wants to "uncover the truth" like he does in his thesis.
About Hemingway, I don't really know and Gallagher may be right : E. Hemingway could have recreated his life in Paris, just to be more close to an american fantasy.
However, I have read almost every book of H. Miller and he, more than anyone else, seemed to find attractive the "boheme" in France. He went in Paris "to be poor", he knew that he would find this poverty in Europe.
I heard a lot about the book by Gallagher and I couldn't understand why he had to put, into this book, a study of Henry Miller's life. With the exception of the "American community in Paris", in which Miller has certainly been a member, maybe ? Gallagher seems to describe H. Miller as an opportunistic person, which is a complete misinterpretation of Henry Miller's life and work ! H.M. is desgusted, oftenly, because of French people AND American people.

One last thing : the fairytale about "an image of romantic Paris" which "has" to persist because of someone's interests. I lived in Paris for twenty years and I can assure you they don't need Henry Miller or Hemingway's work to be blessed "a romantic city". Museums, famous bridges, monuments and so on... Paris is Paris.
No one knows Henry Miller or E. Hemingway in France ! And here,in their works, we talk about the prewar vision of Paris, almost a century ago ! Do you really think readers of the year 2014 will go to Paris because they have read the work, so motley about Paris, of Henry Miller ? Gallagher seems to "seek the terrorist under the bed", just to write a few provocative lines, to find an ennemy.