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Why France?

American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination

Laura Lee Downs, Stéphane Gerson, Roger Chartier

Publication Year: 2006

France has long attracted the attention of many of America's most accomplished historians. The field of French history has been vastly influential in American thought, both within the academy and beyond, regardless of France's standing among U.S. political and cultural elites. Even though other countries, from Britain to China, may have had a greater impact on American history, none has exerted quite the same hold on the American historical imagination, particularly in the post-1945 era.

To gain a fresh perspective on this passionate relationship, Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson commissioned a diverse array of historians to write autobiographical essays in which they explore their intellectual, political, and personal engagements with France and its past. In addition to the essays, Why France? includes a lengthy introduction by the editors and an afterword by one of France's most distinguished historians, Roger Chartier. Taken together, these essays provide a rich and thought-provoking portrait of France, the Franco-American relationship, and a half-century of American intellectual life, viewed through the lens of the best scholarship on France.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-20

Why France? Answers will come, but first the question. It forced itself upon us in the spring of 2004, in Paris. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the leading association of American historians of France was holding its annual meeting on the banks of the Seine—far from the college towns in which it usually convenes. ...

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1. A Medievalist and Francophile Despite Himself

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pp. 21-34

On October 1, 1953, a twenty-four-year-old Fulbright student disembarked from the French liner Flandre at Le Havre in Normandy. Of the thirty-odd fellow Fulbrights on board, no one could have been less prepared for the future. He was a teetotaler and nonsmoker who did not know how to pronounce the French word for the ticket he held in his hand. ...

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2. A Mid-Atlantic Identity

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pp. 35-46

A smallish town in the Virginia Appalachians might seem impossibly remote from France. Even so, France was actively present in my home town in the 1930s and 1940s. Lexington is a college town. Two professors of French were frequent dinner guests of my parents. ...

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3. Tough Love for France

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pp. 47-60

All of my historical work (and much of my life) has been dedicated to refusing, disassembling, and attacking laws and rules. Questioning the idols of authority has not made my personal life or my professional one easy. But it has benefited my history writing by adding the passion of engagement to the scholarly work. ...

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4. Fantasy Meets Reality: A Midwesterner Goes to Paris

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pp. 61-72

F. Scott Fitzgerald opened the door to France for me when I was sixteen. Since he had grown up only a few blocks away from our house in St. Paul, Minnesota, curiosity prompted me to read Tender is the Night, set on the French Riviera. One novel quickly led to another and yet another, and soon I had devoured all of Fitzgerald, ...

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5. Défense d’afficher . . .

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pp. 73-88

France had no place in my Brooklyn childhood, which was drenched in schmaltz rather than sauce béarnaise and framed by deeply ambivalent memories of another Europe from which my grandparents and parents had fled in the wake of World War I. France was one of numerous exotic encounters I had in my first year at Princeton in 1959. ...

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6. France for Belgium

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pp. 89-98

It is my profound conviction that what we do as historians is to write, in highly displaced, usually unconscious, but nonetheless determined ways, our inner, personal obsessions. At least this holds true for the historical work that we feel we have to do, as opposed to the manifold professional obligations undertaken as part of the normal course of a career. ...

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7. Why Paris?

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pp. 99-110

My Dutch grandmother explained my fascination with French history as the product of the small drop of French blood flowing in my veins from the seduction of one of my Dutch foremothers by a French soldier during the wars of the Revolution. She waited until I was in my mid-twenties to tell me this, presumably so as not to shock me, ...

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8. Catholic Connections, Jewish Relations, French Religion

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pp. 111-122

I can imagine many explanations as to why I ended up studying the religious history of modern France. From a professional perspective, the shrine of Lourdes was a topic ripe for the picking in the 1970s, a way to combine concerns for social movements in the nineteenth century with the growing realization of the power of religion as a mobilizing force. ...

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9. Europe without Personal Angst

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pp. 123-136

I never set out to become a historian of France. Even after I decided to go to graduate school in history, I had no intention of devoting my energies to the Hexagon. In fact, even after I had spent over a year doing dissertation research in Paris in 1973–1974, I still thought of myself as a modern European intellectual historian ...

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10. France, a Political Romance

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pp. 137-150

I wish I could say that I had nothing but deep intellectual motivations for studying France, but the truth is: there was this girl. She was a young woman, of course, a brilliant fellow Princeton undergraduate who became my wife and later my ex. She spoke beautiful French and knew French history, writing a senior thesis on the nationalism of Maurice Barrès. ...

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11. Choosing History, Discovering France

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pp. 151-162

Just what possessed me to give Robespierre’s final speech before his appointment with the guillotine in my high school’s annual oratorical contest I cannot say for sure. “The defenders of liberty will be but outlaws so long as a horde of knaves shall rule!”—lines like these first uttered by a man with a checkered reputation ...

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12. An African American in Paris

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pp. 163-176

So occurred the rather inarticulate birth of a French historian. The above passage more or less recapitulates my first meeting with my graduate advisor, Harvey Goldberg, when I began my studies for a doctorate in European history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. ...

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13. Writing at the Margins

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pp. 177-188

The French army archives at the Château de Vincennes, where I did most of the research for my doctoral dissertation, was the most agreeable place I have ever worked. They were much less frequented in the mid-1980s than today, still less frequently by researchers not working on genealogy or Napoleon. ...

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14. It’s Not About France

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pp. 189-202

Stick a pin into the geographic center of France and it will poke through near Bruère-Allichamps, some forty-five kilometers south of the cathedral town of Bourges. Or at least that was the location of France’s center as calculated in 1799, soon after Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain completed their seven-year survey of the French meridian ...

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15. Pilgrim’s Progress: From Suburban Canada to Paris (via Montreal, Tokyo, and Tehran)

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pp. 203-214

Why France? The short answer is Blame Canada. Or, more precisely, blame Madame Boucher, my second-grade French teacher, and her ingenious reward system: a paper ticket for each correct answer; a gold star in exchange for five tickets. “Bonjour, Madame,” “Puis-je vous aider?” “Je voudrais une pomme.” ...

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16. Between Douai and the U.S.A

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pp. 215-226

It was during my first flight across the Atlantic that I abandoned all allegiance to the Republican Party. It was 1985, and I was on the way to spend my junior year of high school as an exchange student in France. The trip from suburban Rochester, New York, had already been eventful, starting at the airport with an early morning sighting of the rap group the Fat Boys, ...

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pp. 227-232

The question that Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson put to the sixteen American and Canadian historians who contributed to this volume was a terribly simple one: “Why France?” Nothing could be easier, it might seem, than to explain how a foreign country became the focal point of a scholar’s research and thus a place to visit often ...


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pp. 233-238


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pp. 239-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780801464812
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801444142

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2006

Edition: 1