The City of Light and the Making of American Writers
An essay by Fred Beauford
For reasons I cannot fully understand, for the last few years I have become obsessed with reading biographies of 20th Century American writers; madly almost, until book after book finally led me to those writers who came to the conclusion that exile from America was the only way they could ever fully realize their talents as creative writers in a uncharted post war world, first with Ernest Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” and their long, slow journey by sea to the fable City of Light.
Hemingway’s shell-shocked generation was still walking in the bloody footsteps of the most horrendous shedding of human blood by other humans in recorded history; what we call World War One.
It was also clear that The Lost Generation was seeking small, fun filled caves with like-minded souls, to slowly lick their wounds and seek something meaningful other than material things and more warfare.
American writers first discovered Paris as the place to be for artists because of a newspaperman and political activist from New England named Henry Clapp, Jr. In August 1849, Clapp went to Paris to attend a three-day world peace congress, where he found a city that had just experienced a revolution the year before he arrived, and “the boulevards of Paris still thrummed with idealism, slogans and grand artistic schemes. The city’s cafes played host to a thriving scene, known as Bohemianism,” writes Justin Martin in Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians
After the experience of Paris, and the vibrant artistic atmosphere-- made even more so by the instant sensation on November 22, 1849 of the play La Vie de Boheme, which Puccini later adapted in 1896 for his classic opera, La Boheme—there was no way that Clapp could return to New England. Instead, he moved to New York City, determined to bring to America the Bohemia he had experience in Paris. And bring it he did, and he single-handedly started the mystique of The City of Light in America.
It was Gertrude Stein—Paris’s abiding spirit and prominent literary hostess—who coined the phrase “The Lost Generation” in conversation with Ernest Hemingway.
“You are all a lost generation,” she said to him.
These “lost” American writers that often cross path with Stein and Hemingway, included folks like, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, the notorious Zelda Fitzgerald of legend.
Notwithstanding the highly entertaining drunken antics of the Fitzgerald’s, my personal favorites among this crowd of lost souls from America, have always been Sara Murphy, and her husband, the some times painter Gerald Murphy.
Although marginally literary, the pair was great to look at, both being exceptional good looking; and they were also very rich, fashionable, loved writers, and was well known for the famous line, “Living well is the best revenge ”
During this period these American exiles encountered not only the famous Murphys, but interacted with “any number of intersecting artistic cliques including Modernists and Cubists, Dadaists and Futurists, Expressionists and Surrealists. These were the years of Picasso and Modigliani, Braque and Duchamp, Stravinski and Satie, Diaghilev and Cocteau. Radical developments in the visual and performing arts were mirrored in the Continental literature of the time, from the surrealist shock tactics of André Bréton and Guillaume Apollinaire, to the textual experimentation of Joyce and Beckett. It was into this vibrant, inspiring foment of idea and innovation that the self-imposed exiles of America’s “Lost Generation” flung themselves.”
(Editor’s note: this highly dramatic quote is from a book entitled The Lost Generation, but as I tried to find the exact book it was taken from, and posted online, I found over 500 titles of the same name. Obviously, The Lost Generation has had its fair share of admirers).
And, after another horrifying world war in as little as over twenty years later, we find American writers once again trying to make sense of a world that seems to go mad every twenty years, almost on cue.
During most of the late 40s and early 50s, American intellectuals and artists, as shell-shocked as the Lost Generation, having witness slaughter beyond belief, ended up once again in the same place as The Lost Generation: the fable City of Light, Paris.
Now we have yet another great wave of American artists’ infatuated with Paris. Even black American writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, the often overlooked Chester Hines, the then dancer, poet/memoirist Maya Angelo, all fled to Paris, where they encountered Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, Edith Piaf, Sartre, a much older Picasso, Camus, and countless white American writers like James Jones, Norman Mailer, Christopher Isherwood, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Truman Capote, all doing the “Paris bohemian thing,” as Baldwin might say.
And as much as these brilliant writers felt that they had to fled an uptight, militaristic, anti-gay, anti-interracial couples, racist America, most soon realized that they were Americans after all, that there was indeed something called an American.
When they looked at each closely, they saw a part of themselves, especially when they discovered how marginalized the Arabs were in France. Black and white, gay or not, well off, or barely getting by, they immediately recognized what that was all about. They had grown up with these kinds of characters, and came to the City of Light in the first place, to get away from them. But there they now were.
And, like the Lost Generation before them, these writers also had an even stronger pull back to America. France was still suffering from the last war, and was trying to hold on to what was left of its once mighty colonial power, especially Algeria.
America was never a real colonial player, like Britain and France, and after both world wars, it quickly went back to what it did best: make a lot of people rich. This country was still the most dynamic country on earth, and there were grants, awards, and magazines to write for; book companies were pining away for their services. And there was new thing called television, which could give them more fame than they ever hoped for.
And once again, what really made America exciting for these creative writers, like those ex-pats before then, was this was where the action was, where clouds of turmoil were slowly gathering, where it looked as if old wounds could at last be addressed.
What else could such a writer want? This was the New World.
Richard Wright and Chester Himes, with Himes finally settling in Franco’s Spain, refused to leave Europe. Henry Miller stayed longer then most, and James Baldwin never fully gave up on France, and spent most of his adult life going back and forth between the two counties, with many stops in Istanbul. He died at the age of 63, December 1, 1987 at Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France.
Those that left for good did not give up bohemia, however, when they decided to return home, and stayed true to their bohemian roots, started by Henry Clapp, and soon settled in North Beach in San Francisco, and Greenwich Village in New York City, which had become mother’s milk for creative writers and essayists, despite the heady hedonism of wine, women (and hot young boys) and American jazz, of Paris.
“Yes, I am an American,” most ultimately said, including a deeply conflicted, wavering Baldwin, who despite his saying he was just a novelist, and leave him alone to do his art, he became the spokesman and conscious of the Civil Rights Generation in America, and like the others, sailed back home more than eager to join in the debate that was now unfolding in their country.
Return to home page