- Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars
That Americans, at least those of a certain class and cultural aspiration, have long sought (and sometimes found) in Paris a second home is a truism reinforced by regular reading of the New York Times. That Parisians have long endured, but not necessarily embraced, this American enthusiasm is equally true. Why this ambivalent often fraught relationship mattered—to the French and Americans alike—in the years following World War I is the intriguing topic deftly analyzed in Becoming Americans in Paris. By looking beyond the familiar story of the "Lost Generation," Blower demonstrates that Americans' varied experiences of Paris in the 1920s were more politically complicated and more significant to the formation of American national identity than customarily believed. Far from being only the escapist haunt of expatriate artists and intellectuals, Paris enticed thousands of newly affluent tourists, many with a taste for the forbidden pleasures of the capital; American Legionnaires eager to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the doughboys' arrival in France; and numerous others whose time in Paris helped them to define for themselves what it meant to be American.
The narrative of Becoming Americans in Paris focuses on three major and sometimes overlapping developments that either brought Americans to Paris or compelled Paris to come to terms (and sometimes express its displeasure) with America: the political uproar, generated primarily on the left, by the execution in 1927 of Ferdinando Sacco and Barto-lomeo Vanzetti; the campaign of Jean Chiappe, the conservative mayor of Paris, to clean up the morally insalubrious corners of the capital; and the decision of the American Legion to hold its annual meeting in Paris in September 1927. Having analyzed these three episodes, each of which in its own way reveals an "American Paris" unlike that immortalized by the expatriate writers, Blower then returns to the expatriates themselves to ask whether the familiar story of expatriate writers seeking refuge from "the real world" in French cafés and disinterested literary experimentation is the best way to understand the significance of Paris to the "Lost Generation." Far from being a haven where writers could and did ignore the political challenges of the day, Blower views Paris as "an entrepôt of causes and connections where expatriates began to develop new forms of American internationalism" (215). She concludes that "contrary to stereotypes, Paris had readied many expatriates not simply for a return to their own nation but also for a new international participation" (238).
Becoming Americans in Paris is an excellent example of what transnational history ought to be. Although more interested in how the experiences of Americans in Paris shaped their own self-identity than in how the American presence in Paris influenced the evolution of French national identity, Blower is astutely aware of both sides of the story. Anti-Americanism—informed [End Page 463] either by French disdain for America's retrograde politics or by disgust at the arrogant and vulgar behavior of inebriated Americans on the town—is well documented in this book.
Chiappe's campaign to clean up the tawdry haunts eagerly sought (and then primly denounced) by American tourists revealed how eager the French were to define their capital (and themselves) as more dignified than the guidebooks and dirty postcards peddled to Americans were wont to suggest. But Becoming Americans in Paris is more transnational than explicitly interdisciplinary in its methodology. To be sure, it examines the politics and civic culture of interwar Paris and its itinerant American visitors, but it does not, for example, explicitly deploy the methodologies of textual or visual analysis outside the usual conventions. That being said, it is an illuminating, elegantly written, and extremely worthwhile enterprise.