In the United States there is an acknowledged underemphasis on the humanities and arts, on teachers and writers. Why become a writer and produce art which inspires generations when you can simply become an accountant and buy a second house in the Hamptons? Not everyone has such a thought, but the thought is present in our culture in varying degrees. The archetypes of the writer as seen in media are often demeaning: the suffering, melodramatic poet; the starving and easily-hurt-by-criticism writer; the hack writer who thinks his work is gold when it’s rubbish. Few tropes of writers are positive, and all media is training. We are trained, in short, to ignore or dismiss the writer.
But this attitude is not worldwide. In Paris, for example, the writer has attained a more legendary status, a fact most clear in their treatment of American writers. During the 1900s and later again in the 1940s there was a mass exodus of American writers in Paris, including notables such as Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. Although these Americans were not always welcomed by the French, in time the French have come to embrace them: you can consult A Moveable Feast and Alice B. Toklas on a literary tour of Paris and quickly find your way aided by the many plaques put up by the French commemorating American writers.
Where are the plaques in America commemorating these writers? Nonexistent, in short. A town may claim to be Hemingway’s birthplace, but in no other city is a plaque erected simply to commemorate that for five years a brilliant writer lived in this apartment building, that perhaps in this café a brilliant novel was written. The French have plenty of their own writers and artists to celebrate—Derrida, Foucault, Dumas. And they are celebrated. Yet it seems a sad fact that the American writer is more celebrated in France than they could ever hope to be in their native America.
Here are several plaques of American writers in Paris.
Born in New York City in what a previous post has noted is now a Starbucks, Edith Wharton was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist most famous for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Edith Wharton was also notable for writing on the details and peculiarities of French high society, though she was never truly accepted into it.
The plaque commemorating her residence in Paris reads,
“She was the first writer from the United States to emigrate to France for the love of this country and its literature.”
The most famous American in Paris, Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and spent much of his early years in Paris supporting himself by writing for the Toronto Star. As with many of the male American artists and writers, he arrived in Paris by way of being an ambulance driver in the first World War. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Old man and the Sea and was at first friends and then quiet enemies with Gertrude Stein.
The plaque commemorating his residence in Paris reads:
“From January 1922 to August 1923, on the third floor of this building, with Hadley, his wife, lived the American writer Ernest Hemingway.
“The neighborhood, he loved not all, the true birthplace of his work and the plain style that characterizes it. This American in Paris maintained familiar relations with his neighbors, especially the owner of the adjoining dancehall.”
“This was the Paris of our youth, back when we were very poor and very happy.”
A Pennsylvania native who was largely ignored or ridiculed in America during her writing career, in Paris Gertrude Stein was a literary and artistic figure who has remained unparalleled in role and importance. She was the creator of a French salon which invited only gifted writers and artists; the invitation to Stein’s Saturday evenings was a highly sought after honor and token of artistic acknowledgment for young artists in Paris.
A great art collector and the creator of a very stripped, repetitive, and unique style, she was a mentor to such writers as Hemingway although she also had many quarrels. Her most noted and experimental literary work is Tender Buttons, while The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas received wider mainstream attention.
Her plaque reads:
“Lived here with her brother, Leo Stein, then with Alice B Toklas, she received many artists and writers from 1902 to 1938.”
While many of the other American writers received acclaim only after their French careers, Wright was well-known in the U.S. before escaping to Paris, having earned a Guggenheim fellowship, a five hundred dollar short story prize, and completed his first novel, Native Son, which was the first Book of the Month Club book to be written by a Black American.
In Paris he became familiar with existentialism, befriending Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as well as writing the famous novel The Outsider.
His plaque reads:
“A man of letters, a Black American, Richard Wright lived in this building from 1948 to 1959.”