- Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the Wars by Brooke L. Blower
In Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the Wars, Brook L. Blower examines how cultural migration to Paris in the mid twentieth century shaped the culture of the United States. She sets out to determine: “what difference did this overseas movement make to Americans’ sense of themselves and their culture?” (10–11). The text is lucid and readable, and the investigation offers innovative perspectives on several sociopolitical events, such as the Sacco and Vanzetti riots and the American Legion processions in France. However, the monograph lacks a comprehensive theoretical foundation on social displacement and collective identity, a fact which undermines some of Blower’s ultimate conclusions on American cultural identity.
The first two chapters, “Triumphant Arrivals” and “Reluctant Hosts,” examine the dimensions of life abroad for expatriate Americans and the local [End Page 239] response to these newcomers; the first section includes a superb demographic review of American residents in Paris from period sources. Early on Blower addresses the idealized notion of “Americans in Paris,” suggesting that her work will engage a more objective stance. Nonetheless she also notes that “It is hard to resist such romanticizing” (1), and throughout the book her perspectives are informed by a presumed positivity about life in the French capital. She writes, “Through American eyes, Paris glimmered, shimmied” (19) and describes the place as having “a seductive atmosphere” and “87,775 trees for lovers to embrace under” (4). This celebratory register overlooks many negative outcomes of long-term immersion in a non-native society—and thus, the critical approach in some sense binds Blower’s analytical frame to the bounds of the studies she attempts to supplant.
Blower is at her best discussing political events that concern American policy. Chapter 3, “The Sacco and Vanzetti Riots,” employs the Paris riots as a crucible to explore the developing resonances of American political trends in European society. “The Sacco-Vanzetti affair emerged as a key lens through which Americans’ place in the early-twentieth-century world would be understood” (97). The chapter documents how Parisians “set out to taunt Americans” (94) during this tenuous period by protesting at Gare San Lazare, Café de la Paix, Champs D’Liesee, in front of the US embassy, and at Café Select. These events are deftly contextualized by what Blower calls “cultural imperialism” of some American expatriates. She asserts that Americans projected this metaphoric control of the city in restaurants (demanding fast service) and bars (requesting an abbreviated cocktail hour) among other zones of cultural interaction.
Blower’s study of the 1927 riots functions as a contextual base that characterizes the Franco-American political climate in the two succeeding chapters: “Prefect Chiappe’s Purging of Paris” and “Legionnaires on Parade.” In a compelling discussion of Jean Chiappe’s “purging” of American symbols in Paris, Blower demonstrates how the French public identified American icons as negative—but were obliged to balance the official response in order to preserve the important tourist dollars. “Legionnaires on Parade” fleshes out the presence of Americans themselves (not just their dollars and icons) through a look into the Legionnaires’ procession through the city: “[Their] Americanism was instantly recognizable. Its symbols and practices appeared comfortingly familiar, gathering together the surface components of Americana but cultivating beneath them unseen depths” (190). Blower argues here that “Americanism” is the employment of artifacts and ceremony—flag, flag rituals, cowboy outfits, sombreros, Revolutionary war apparel, blue tunics, New York police uniforms, Hawai’i leis, and steel helmets. Her discussion of these events, while intriguing and historically relevant, is somewhat limited as there is little analysis of how these artifacts and rituals—being carried out in the French capital—might be influential or have a modifying quality for the collective identity of the group(s) they represent.
The final chapter, “Expatriates Reconsidered,” attempts to reinterpret the expatriate culture of Americans in this period. In this section, as throughout the book, Blower employs a third...