Ronald Weber. News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006. 333 pp. + 8 pp. of plates. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56663-676-6; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-56663-732-9.
Reviewed by Catherine McKercher (Carleton University)
Published on Jhistory (October, 2006)
Ronald Weber took the title of his new book from an unfinished story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "News of Paris--Fifteen Years Ago," written in 1940. Applied to this volume, though, the title is not entirely appropriate. This book contains remarkably little news of Paris. Instead, it tells the stories of hundreds of Americans who flocked to Paris to be writers in the two decades after the First World War. These people made news in Paris--some of it about themselves, but most of it in publications for expatriates or for audiences back home. Starting a book review by criticizing the choice of a preposition may seem frivolous, but the extent to which this book is of Paris goes a long way toward explaining its strengths and weaknesses.
For the generation of American writers who came of age during the First World War, Paris was a city of promise and hope, a place where ideas flowed as freely (and as cheaply) as the wine. Some Americans came to escape Prohibition and the parochialism of American society. Others were eager to experience the city that had replaced London as the center of European news. And some simply wanted to have fun and found paid employment with American-owned newspapers in Paris as a way to do just that.
Weber, a professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, fills his pages with stories about hundreds of American writers and would-be writers who saw Paris as the place to make their mark--or, at least, the place to be until they figured out what to do with their lives. A few found fame, but most did not. And by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the vast majority had gone home.
The assortment of books by Americans in Paris--from Henry James to Janet Flanner to A.J. Liebling to Adam Gopnik--could fill many a shelf. What distinguishes Weber's book is its focus on journalism and its breadth. Weber's book begins, as all such collections about Americans in Paris in the interwar years seemingly must, with Ernest Hemingway. From there, he offers a pastiche of anecdotes about writers and the outlets for which they wrote. The meatiest chapters are histories of "the dear Paris Herald"--the phrase is New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner's and conveyed irony rather than praise--and the Chicago Tribune's Paris edition, which Harold Stearns described as "a one-way ticket to the Never-Never-Land of male irresponsibility, absurdity and entertainment" (p. 75). Weber visits some of the lesser papers, such as the Paris Times and the Evening Telegram, and literary magazines like The Boulevardier and transition. Later, he looks at Americans who wrote for audiences back home. The final chapter analyzes the expatriate era's contribution to literature. Aside from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934)--both of them about Paris journalism, Weber notes--little of that literature is read today.
The scope of the book is enormous, and the anecdotes range from the hilarious to the tragic. A young James Thurber, working for the Riviera edition of the Tribune, leavens the toil of editing copy for the high-season supplement by inventing dozens of social items for the society editor, who happened to be his wife. These items included one about a lieutenant general with the improbable name of Pendleton Gray Winslow and an even more improbable pet, a "prize Burmese monkey named Thibault" (p. 105). Reporter Spencer Bull--bored, drunk, or both--hits the front page with a fake report that has the visiting Prince of Wales beat a Boy Scout to death with a riding crop. (Weber notes that part of the legend is that the British embassy snapped up every copy of the paper and that the Tribune's own bound volumes are missing that day's edition.) Harold Stearns, who made his mark with Civilization in the United States (1922), a book that excoriated the aesthetic and emotional wasteland of America, spends most of his time dirty and drunk in Montparnasse. A miserable Dorothy Thompson supports herself by writing for the Red Cross at a penny a line until she talks herself into a title of Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, if not an actual job.
Fascinating as these stories are, something is missing in this book--and here we return to the problem posed by that pesky preposition. What's missing in News of Paris is Paris. Unlike Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon (2000), where the city takes center stage, Paris is a mere backdrop for the stories Weber tells--a set, not a real time and place. Interwar Paris, as described by Colin Jones in his masterful Paris: The Biography of a City (2004), was a city of intense contradictions. Though it emerged from the First World War relatively unscathed compared to the rest of France, Paris was infused with a fear that its best days were behind it. The postwar years brought social unrest and political polarization: The Left was inspired by the Russian revolution, and in response there was a revival of the Right. Meanwhile, as the center of the modernist movement, Paris attracted foreigners of all kinds--not just Americans and not just writers. The stars of the "Paris school" of painters and sculptors, to take one example, were Russian, Italian, Spanish, Lithuanian, German, Japanese, and American--almost anything but Parisian. And after a boom in the 1920s during which the city partied more heartily than anyplace else, Paris sank into recession in 1931. Over the next eight years, the economic hard times were made all the gloomier by the rise of fascism in neighboring countries and a growing awareness that another war was inevitable.
Weber's book does not tell us about that Paris or what it meant to the Americans whose stories he tells. Indeed, we are often left to wonder how, or even whether, those Americans embraced or resisted French culture, French politics, or French intellectualism, and how they managed day-to-day life in a language only some of them spoke. From Weber's account, it is possible to conclude that many of them hung out exclusively with each other, swapping stories and treating Paris like a bigger and boozier version of summer camp. Camp stories can be fun, of course, and certainly this book is a good read. But in the end we are left to wonder whether interwar Paris was merely a diverting interlude or whether it had a deeper impact on American journalism.
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Catherine McKercher. Review of Weber, Ronald, News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars.
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