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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Lost Generation

It is cold and clear here the day after Christmas.  Sunny and dry enough, in fact, to finish the fall cleanup in the garden this afternoon.  But waking up to a chill in the air (which aggravates the arthritis) and then realizing that if one wishes a warm house, there is work to be done - clearing out the old ashes, gathering kindling, bringing in enough wood to fill the basket, nursing the fire from small embers to a roaring blaze - is not always pleasant even for someone as matinale as myself.

As I get older the list of things necessary for a modicum of comfort in the morning grows ever longer.  It used to be just coffee.  Two cups of coffee and I could face anything.  Now it's coffee, aspirin, breakfast, movement to loosen up and a warm fire. I'm struggling to find the optimal order of things in my new routine.  Do I eat first so I can take my analgesics so I can make a fire without feeling like my hips are about to give out?  Or do I make a fire first so that when I sit down for breakfast, the ambient temperature in the dining room is sufficiently warm so that I feel content and comfortable as I put enough food in my stomach to tolerate the painkillers?

In any case there is a lot of grumbling that goes along with my morning ritual.  I used to jokingly tell people that my highest aspiration was to be "old, evil and rich."  Now I know that old is inevitable, rich is over-rated and evil is too damn much work.

Speaking of work, last night I finished up a very good book called Writing the Lost Generation:  Expatriate Biography and American Modernism by Craig Monk.  All those late 20th century books that I have read about Americans in Paris (the ones that I refer to as "fairy tales") have a long pedigree.  Americans have been coming to France and writing about it since the days of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and  James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).  But the ghosts that haunt today's Americans abroad in France (and perhaps, by extension, all Americans living outside the U.S.) came in the period between the two World Wars (the 1920's and 30's).

They were called "The Lost Generation" - a term I think was coined by Gertrude Stein.  These were the days of mass exodus from the United States by people we would refer to today as "creatives":  poets, writers, artists, singers, actors, and the like.  Their departure and behaviour in the French capital was controversial.  They were admired by some homelanders, vilified by others.  Some were wildly successful and became cultural icons like Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Others returned home broke and broken. A few never came home at all like Stein who died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1946.

I read many of their works in high school and at university.  A few I picked up later when I was no longer a captive of someone else's curriculum and the one I liked the best was Henry Miller who wrote The Tropic of Cancer and Under the Roofs of Paris which was pure pornography albeit well-written eroticism.

Writing the Lost Generation was the first book I ever read that put these writers side by side and tried to make sense of them as expatriate writers.  What were they looking for when they left the U.S.?  What happened to them?  How did they relate to other Americans trying to live the same experience?  Why did so many of them feel compelled to write autobiographies?  From where came this  "persistent desire of expatriate Americans to chronicle their experiences abroad"?  And why is the "American in Paris/France" autobiography still so damn popular; this theme enjoys commercial success in the homeland even today.   To follow in the footsteps of the "Lost Generation" still confers cultural capital.

One thing seems clear to me - the American writers of the early 20th century were pulled, not pushed, to Europe,  though many claimed the latter and they sure succeeded in offending some homelanders with their criticisms of life in the U.S. and their behaviour once they arrived.  Still, some tried to mitigate their words by assuring their audience that they were still Americans and would always be Americans wherever they lived and however long they stayed abroad.  (Does that sound familiar?)  Their goal was certainly not integration/assimilation.  They lived in what I think is fair to call a colony, and few went outside Paris to visit other parts of France.

It was being in Paris that changed them, they seemed to be saying, not necessarily the French.  The freedom of life in a big old city, contact with other creatives from the U.S. and other countries and, frankly, an escape from the tyranny of homeland expectations about reliable employment and "making a living" were all very attractive to them.  There was (is) also, I contend, an environment here in France where an artist has honor even if he or she is struggling.  "Why," one author complained at the time, "was there, in America, no satisfying career open to talent?"

For better or worse, the expatriates were noticed and named and much ink was spilt on both sides of the Atlantic to explain what they were doing "over here/there."  Opinions varied.  Were they daring avant-garde escapees from "oppression"?  Or were they Americans who had "abandoned their 'moral bearings' once in Europe and estranged themselves from traditional principles"?

In all movements there is a struggle over definition and members past and present feel compelled  to write the history, to capture what it all means, not just for themselves but for everyone else who had lived the same experience.  Monk shows that there was this and more in the expatriate autobiographies that came out of that period.  Some of it was clearly an attempt to define this thing called "The Lost Generation", the "American in Paris,"  the "Expatriate American."  Taken together, the writers of this period paint a picture of an intellectually stimulating, cultured, hedonistic life in "Gay Paree" and many became famous in the American homeland and that led to commercial success.    "With their vivid memories of life in Paris, a wide variety of expatriates received attention from publishers in England and the United States, providing an audience the size of which was unprecedented for many of them."  No wonder that others tried to ride the wave.  That provoked a reaction from the "oldtimers" who then wrote works in response to revise the record and protect the "brand."

Today their works are standard fare in classrooms all over the United States and every American emigrant has surely been influenced by their words long before he or she cast himself upon a distant shore.  This is the path already taken though destinations have changed.  Pew reports that the American communities in Europe have lost population while Asia and Latin America/Carribean have gained.  In the individual's search for authenticity and experience, there may be more romance, and a different kind of cultural capital, to be had in Belize or Kyoto than in Paris or London.

But wherever Americans are landing these days the old self-conscious impulse to chronicle one's experience (conversion?) is still there.   Autobiographies abound and even Paris still sells.  I am reading more and more of them these days in my quest to produce a decent American Diaspora reading list.

As I read, however, I am more and more aware of the limitations of these personal accounts.  Two things about them disturb me:   They are all too often written as though the authors' lives and experiences were entirely unique (as though nothing came before they sat their precious selves down in that Paris apartment).  There is so little in them that ties the past to the present or  recognizes that a few million of their compatriots are on the very same train, seeking their own individual conversion experience.

The second is that each attempt (however the authors strenuously insist that this is simply their own distinctive and isolated experience) does shape our impressions of other Americans abroad and the homeland's view of us as a group.  There are persistent negative and positive stereotypes of Americans living abroad, some of which I think can be traced back to the Lost Generation,  that are confirmed by these popular self portraits.  It is as if there was a record playing "Americans Abroad" on an antique gramophone back in the homeland  and there are grooves worn down by the needle that sing:  "escape", "freedom", "cosmopolitan," "unpatriotic," "selfish."

And from time to time some homeland interest picks the needle up and puts the last two on continuous replay.

It does not follow from this that we should stop writing about our experiences.  Rather it is a call for some awareness of ourselves as part of something larger.   There is a past here that most of us know very little about that makes the present. We did not arrive here entirely by chance.   As long as we think of and write about ourselves as atomized individuals we can still be attacked as the community we deny that we are, and, as a result, we will have few effective means of defense.  We need to know our own history and we need facts to counter some of the more egregious arguments and ugly stereotypes being used against us.

Above all, I think we need to acquire a loose sense of solidarity. This does not mean that we form a herd and give up our cherished individualism and independence.  It just means a little more self-knowledge and a recognition that we have common experiences and, most importantly, a few common interests whether we live in Sao Paulo or Shanghai.

Or we can simply revive what Monk says was the original meaning of the word expatriate in 1920's American English:  "someone who had permanently abandoned the United States."

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a very good read - thanks for the review. So many people (myself included) have walked around Paris in the footsteps of Hemingway and others. You might also be interested in David McCullough's "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" which deals with an earlier period (1830-1900).

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh, it was and I will put up a review on Goodreads today or tomorrow. Monk said some things that really made me stop and think and that, for me, makes it a very good read indeed.

McCullough's book is next!

Ellen said...

I really enjoyed McCullough's book. I'm not in the mood for serious reading right now, but I'm putting your recommendations on my goodreads "to read" list for the future.
About the heat. I know you have the wood stove, but you still have central heating, too, don't you? I have no idea what it costs, but we have a thermostat that allows us time spreads during the day at a set temperature. In our house, I set the night-time temp at 14°C, but the morning temp, 19°C starts at 5, so by the time I get up, it's warm enough. A worthwhile investment.

French Girl in Seattle said...

Bonjour Victoria. I meant to stop by and thank you for your visit chez Moi; then started reading and really enjoyed your piece.

As a former English Major in college (my Major at la Sorbonne U. was "American Studies" :-) I did get to explore the writings of "The Lost Generation." I would agree with you that the genre known as "American-expat-living-in-Paris-musings" still has many good days ahead. I wonder if the same is true of foreign (French?) expats living in the United States? :-) I never got that impression. M. de Tocqueville was an exception, of course.

It was interesting to re-discover that topic through the eyes of an American living abroad, one who has clearly "integrated" and bothered learning more about the French culture and the French, as I have tried to do here, in the United States. Maybe you and I should write a book about our experiences. I suppose we already do… through our blogs.

At any rate, I did stop by to wish you all the best for 2014. It is no secret I did not enjoy 2013. It was definitely a transition year for me, and many friends around me. Since you live in Versailles, I will bid farewell to 2013 the way the French court announced the reign of a new king: "2013 is dead. Vive 2014!" :-) Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

PS: Stay warm… and keep drinking coffee!

bubblebustin said...

A lot of food for thought there, Victoria. I'd say the biggest barrier to a favourable public opinion is the stereotyping of the US expat in great part due to what's taught about the Lost Generation, as you've pointed out (btw, not required reading in Canadian schools). The concept of being "pushed" or "pulled" to far away places is something I too have explored, and as as a result I try to refer to myself as an American "emigrant" rather than "expat". Besides the fact that most homelanders don't know the difference between an "expatriate" and "ex-patriot", I prefer to leave the impression that I've gone somewhere vs having left somewhere.

I don't believe that any generation of US emigrant has experienced the kind of crisis we are now experiencing, and without a change to RBT, we may one day be referred to as the "Last Generation".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen, I have another to recommend. So today's post on Diana Anhalt's book about Americans in Mexico during the Cold War. A great read.

And we've started turning on the heat in the morning because of the Frenchling. Her room downstairs gets too cold when we shut off the heat and fire up the woodstove.

@Veronique, I would love to hear more about the American Studies program. You make an excellent point about French (and others) in the US. Is there an equivalent of the American in Paris? The Frenchman in New York/San Francisco? Not that I've seen but I could be wrong.

A book would be VERY interesting. Quite a lot of material we both have because of our blogs. So much we would constrast and compare. Let's think about it.

And may 2014 be your annus mirabilis (year of wonder).

@bubblebustin, I like that "Last Generation." Yep, we are facing extinction. I think there is a definite uptick in the number of Americans seeking second passports. Friends here in Paris say there are many Americans leaving. We've already seen (and Peter Spiro noted) the increasing number of renunciations. I personally believe that many will simply disengage, let the passport expire and hope for better days.