Megan Brown, Review of Brooke L. Blower's "Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars," (Oxford, 2011)
Megan Brown is a graduate student in French History at the Graduate Center of City University of New York.
A flâneur’s lament, Charles Baudelaire’s “The Swan” takes stock of the modernization crusade by Baron Haussmann: “Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart).” Baudelaire would not live to witness World War I, which left the city’s population dotted with wounded veterans and mourning widows. After the war, as the French came to terms with their profound human loss and the newfound strength of the United States, Parisians continued to worry about the shifting urban landscape. In particular, the exploding population of American expatriates gave Parisians cause for concern, as the city adapted its businesses and cultural sites to attract the almighty dollar.
Historians have already devoted countless pages to the Parisian expatriate community, including studies of its African American musicians and its writers jaded by the war. Brooke L. Blower, in Becoming Americans in Paris, attempts to reveal the political and cultural exchanges between Americans and their often-reluctant Parisian hosts, placing the expatriate experience in a transnational perspective. Rather than reiterate depictions of the carefree American community promoted by expatriate writers of the period, Blower highlights its politicized interactions with the French. Blower argues that interwar Paris became a central location for the creation of American political culture and modern American identity. Exchanges in the capital occurred on a two-way street of cultural and political influence, in which the presence of Americans swayed the political discourse of the French, and in which the cultural and political conflicts Americans witnessed shaped their own identity in turn.
Paris’s postwar café terraces and jazz clubs hosted a tremendous variety of Americans, including bankers enjoying the power of the dollar, students participating in burgeoning university abroad programs, journalists cutting their teeth, and tourists, who numbered 400,000 in 1925 alone. As the numbers grew, so too did the demand for entertainment that tourist guides promoted as truly Parisian, but which Blower asserts reflected American taste rather than traditional French culture. These outposts of often-debauched diversion included music halls, dance clubs, and spaces of sexual deviance, such as brothels and gay hangouts.
Blower misses an opportunity to pose key questions about the place of Americans in the French discourse of decadence and in France’s interwar crisis of virility, steering clear of an explicit discussion of very palpable French concerns. Parisians labeled American interlopers as the harbingers of modernity, adding another layer to French perceptions of the decadence of the Third Republic. Rather than concentrate on fears of American influence that may have fed into deeper concerns about the decay of French civilization, Blower focuses on the way in which Parisians blamed Americans for the vulgar modernization of the capital. Parisians watched in horror as the urban landscape acquired seemingly American traits like neon advertising and increased car traffic. In particular, Blower focuses on the four areas that attracted American visitors with daytime drinks and nighttime delights: the Champs-Elysées, Montparnasse, Montmartre, and the Place de l’Opéra. To Parisians, billboards and department stores symbolized an American invasion, yet it was in the capital itself where these commercial developments were crafted. By linking modernity with the arrival of Americans, Parisians sought to define an authentic French identity to contrast that of their ‘colonizers.’
Blower presents three contextualized case studies that hint at the political drama of February 1934, as well as the Vichy ideology, that was to come. First, from the Left came outrage over the prolonged trials and eventual executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. French leftists developed an anti-Americanism that abhorred capitalism and cosmopolitanism, and took on a “rustic nationalism” that rejected modernity in much the same way as their right-wing opponents (p. 129). Viewing the Italians’ cause as a new Dreyfus Affair, supporters menaced American tourists and established their political voice through a denunciation of what they perceived as American injustice.
The second case study, this one focused on the Right, examines the purging of Paris’s unclean elements. Here too, concern over permissive attitudes pervades the Parisian landscape, yet Blower only alludes to the anti-parliamentary riots of 1934 that were to rock the city and lead to the formation of the Popular Front. Spearheaded by police prefect Jean Chiappe, the purge impacted many of the establishments and people Americans sought out to get their kicks, even as Chiappe claimed his efforts would benefit tourism. Questions of morality and the need to protect Parisians from insidious, foreign influences were echoed in Right-wing rhetoric as the interwar period progressed, and Chiappe’s purge appears to be a portent of things to come.
The third example of conflict concerns the literal parading of a new American political identity through the streets, but in the formation of American identity, the centrality of Paris becomes less clear. On September 19, 1927, the American Legion opened its convention with a parade down the Champs-Elysées. Although the city braced for conflict, the peculiar garb and friendly demeanor of the Legionnaires diffused tensions. Blower argues that the absence of unrest does not mean the parade was apolitical. Placing the American Legion within the context of Europe’s rising fascist movements, Blower illuminates the way in which Americans both contributed to and learned from European political culture. But relegating France’s own Croix de Feu to an endnote, Blower loses an opportunity to more explicitly discuss France’s interwar political climate. Thus, while Blower demonstrates the way in which the American presence in Paris helped fashion French political identities, it is less clear how Paris, rather than Europe as a whole, impacted the Americans.
Paris continues to fade from focus as Blower demonstrates Americans’ outward gaze. Turning her attention to celebrated expatriates like Hemingway, Baker, William Shirer, and others, Blower does not locate them within the Parisian sphere for which they are so well-known, but rather within a larger global context. While this approach supports her assertion of new identity, she further decentralizes Paris from the narrative. Describing Americans’ forays into conscientious tourism, Blower chronicles the way in which expatriates traveled to Russia to observe revolutionary politics in action, witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany, and finally, participated in the Spanish Civil War. Americans abroad were no longer wide-eyed bumpkins, but instead were “worldly and steeled” and politically engaged, representing the development of a new American political and cultural identity (p. 255). While Paris may not have been the sole location of this identity creation, Blower thus demonstrates that the interwar period, and its political and economic upheaval, did significantly alter American’s perception of their own identity.
Lively anecdotes and extremely readable prose make Blower’s account of Paris jump off the page, and offer an engaging vision of the city’s tumultuous interwar years. Reading the history forward into the years of Nazi occupation, and, much later, the protests against Americanization that led to bricks hurled through the windows of a Parisian McDonald’s, one cannot help but see threads of protectionism, a cautious embracing of modernity, and the debates about authenticity that would continue to dominate French discussions of culture even into this new century.
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