Replotting the Romance of Paris: Americans and the Commune

by J. Michelle Coghlan

James Baldwin famously remarked of his first arrival in the City of Light that “willy-nilly I was alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.” It was a theme he’d return to in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room as his protagonist, David, wrestles with his sexual identity but keeps coming back to the anguished recognition that we cannot choose our “mooring posts.” For all that David repudiates his father’s sense that he is, after all, “as American as pork and beans,” he finds, when he is in Paris, when he is with Italian lover Giovanni, that he is forced again and again to recognize that “they all had in common something that made them Americans, but I could never put my finger on what it was. I knew that whatever this common quality, I shared it.” Paris is where we go to find out who we are, and for those who have an ambivalent relationship to national affiliations, it has often been the site where we find ourselves to be, almost in spite of ourselves, American.

But it is also, of course, the site where we dream of being (or tasting) French. That it is a very American thing to find oneself so given over to this city, to long to follow in the footsteps of, if we’re honest, all those Americans who made a life or found a lover or wrote a novel or just found themselves there is brought into vivid relief for me every time I teach a seminar on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “Americans in Paris” on the other side of the pond. As one British student put it exasperatedly after twelve weeks of rhapsodic takes on the city, and one class viewing of Midnight in Paris, “I see that it means something to them, but I just don’t get it.” Put a little differently, although Modernist Paris has long been thought of as the prime time to be an American in Paris, Americans felt Paris to be curiously their own long before the Moderns made it their hometown.

Thomas Gold Appleton famously suggested in the 1850s that “good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.”1 But by the turn of the twentieth century, it was already a commonplace that most Americans needn’t die to go: “innocents abroad” and would-be bohemians alike flocked to, as one American writer put it, “the capital of pleasure and happy hunting-ground of the Cook’s tourist.”2 But even as middle and upper-class Americans looked to the City of Light for a taste of culture and corruption, another memory—or more precisely, another Paris—repeatedly resurfaced not only in seemingly anodyne remembrances of “life under the Paris Commune” that ran in periodicals like The Century and Munsey’s but also in bestselling American fiction of the 1890s.3 Returning over and over to the short-lived 1871 uprising that Engels famously dubbed “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” these boys’ books and historical romances recycled an ostensibly conventional plot—sending their heroes to the City of Light to be painters or tourists—so that Americans, in turn, could be privy to and participants in the brutal reconquering of Paris by French government troops, a reconquering which historian John Merriman has recently suggested set the stage for (and in some sense helped to legitimate) the many state-backed massacres of the twentieth century. These Commune romances thus reworked both “the International theme” and the appeal of Paris for Americans by consistently re-imagining Paris not as the seat of civilization, however fallen, but rather as a frontier of empire overrun by “red” savages. In turn, the City of Light is again and again figured in these novels not as a locale of sexual or high cultural awakening (or disillusionment), but rather as a site of political contamination or conversion for Americans—the terrain where, quite literally, men become “Americans” in the political sense. That their republicanism—or “Americanism,” as one novel puts it—is borne by the witnessing of, and in some cases the direct participation in, the decimation of a nominally republican uprising seems a particularly apt fiction in the decade leading up to the Spanish-American War and the U.S. intervention in the Philippines—for, in other words, an America contemplating its role abroad and its own burgeoning imperial ambitions. As the literary critic Amy Kaplan and the historian Gail Bederman have so persuasively suggested, America’s relationship with its diminishing frontier and expanding role abroad was a deeply vexing preoccupation for fin-de-siècle Americans.4

Recovering America’s romance with the Commune in the 1890s thus significantly reconsiders the cultural work of Paris—and what it meant to be an American there—in fin-de-siècle U.S. fiction. But it also critically revises our notion of the role the Commune played in America’s cultural memory during this period. Put simply, the story that historians have come to tell about the Commune’s “afterlife” in America suggests that it had largely faded from the cultural scene by the 1890s, and more to point, that as touchstone and epithet it became synonymous with—and cipher for—only the very real labor unrest of the Gilded Age.5 But novels such as Edward King’s Under the Red Flag (1895), Robert W. Chambers’ The Red Republic (1895), and Eugene Colman Savidge’s The American in Paris (1896) tell another story, insisting not simply that the Paris of 1871 was far from dead in the 1890s, but also that it resurfaces so frequently because the Commune served as a crucible for redefining American democracy even as it provides a crucial terrain for forging both American men and their imperial ambitions.

American fascination with the Paris of the Commune, moreover, extended far beyond the confines of adventure fiction, shaping postbellum tourism in Paris, with pieces on the post-Commune ruins generating generous copy in a variety of American magazines for those who couldn’t afford to make the trip, even as spectacles of the Commune garnered significant audiences into the 1890s. Take, for example, the lavish pyrotechnic spectacle, “Paris, from Empire to Commune,” which debuted on Manhattan Beach on June 24, 1891 to an audience of over ten thousand Coney Island pleasure-seekers. Billed in local newspaper advertisements as “a grand, living, moving tableau of history,” James Pain’s newest pyro-drama offered its audience an immersive sensory experience that merged the outsized visual technology—and modes of seeing—of the panorama with the innovations of late-nineteenth century pyrotechnics while also tapping into the ongoing popularity of historically-inflected melodramas.6 Claiming to exceed Pain’s previous historical pyrotechnic shows in scale, interest and ingenuity, “Paris, from Empire to Commune” involved not only a diverse display of fireworks, reputedly costing over $1000 an evening, but also a live performance of colossal dimensions: a cast of over three hundred costumed actors, acrobats, and circus performers, a 400 foot-wide stage, scenery of immense proportions that recreated Paris’ monuments and streets in intricate detail, and a one-hundred and twenty feet wide waterway situated between stage and crowd which represented the Seine and “afforded still greater opportunities for magnificent [pyrotechnic] effects."7 This spectacular visual performance was accompanied—and, indeed, sensationally illustrated by—a no less thrilling sonic experience, with dialogue and theatrical tableaux filled out by music from Gilmore’s military band and the incessant whooshing and crashing of the hundreds of fireworks dancing across the sky above Manhattan Beach’s newly opened fifteen-thousand seat amphitheater. As the Rocky Mountain News later put it, “the crash of falling walls, the roar of explosions, the thunder of artillery and the blaze of the flames combined to form an impressive panorama.”8

“Paris, from Empire to Commune” remained the hit of the season, with The Sun describing it as a “remarkably strong magnet” on Coney Island visitors and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporting that the nightly pyro-spectacular was continuing to draw crowds of “not fewer, at the lowest estimate, than eight thousand people” two months after it opened.9 But its continuing pull on Coney Island audiences had as much to do with the Paris it put on display and the history it spectacularly repackaged for its viewers as with the bravura of its fireworks. For what “Paris, from Empire to Commune” offered Coney Island crowds that summer was a chance to re-visit Paris’s lost landmarks, to immerse themselves in scenes of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie being entertained by acrobats in the final days of the Empire, but most of all to relive as sensation what The Ohio Democrat would describe as “the most exciting period in the history of France” by way of scenes and pyrotechnics “depicting in the most vivid manner the terrible scenes of fire and carnage in connection with the days when Paris lay helpless in the grasp of the terrible Commune.” That Americans would be encouraged—indeed, be expected to already desire—to line up to see the Commune and its demise restaged as an immense, immersive spectacle and that this spectacle could be so easily imagined as a specifically patriotic one—is all the more striking given the spectacular ongoing role the Commune occupied in the postbellum radical calendar, the cycle of lavish festivals, complete with oratory, tableaux-vivants, music and dancing, that postbellum radicals staged each year to celebrate the start of the uprising.10

Perhaps the most singular and least remembered aspect of the Commune uprising is, as Kristin Ross has recently pointed out, its decidedly “non-national” orientation: “an insurrection in the capital fought under the flag of the Universal Republic, the Commune as event and as political culture has always proved resistant to any seamless integration into [a French] national narrative. As one of its former members recalled years later, it was, above all else, 'an audacious act of internationalism'.”11 Yet postbellum U.S. radicals like Victoria Woodhull and Wendell Phillips who supported the Commune in the 1870s celebrated its legacy precisely as a “universal republic” rather than simply a Parisian event by way of marches and yearly gatherings which united spiritualists, socialists, and free-thinkers with Communard refugees, German immigrants, and Cuban revolutionaries. Turn of the century supporters such as the Los Angeles-based socialist organizer N.L. Griest heralded the Commune’s memory—and annual celebration—as the cornerstone of radical internationalism as counter-cultural remembrance: “Other men may have their days, but to the American workingman the anniversary of the Paris Commune will be the greatest celebration in the calendar."12 But while remembering the Commune helped to consolidate leftist internationalism as an affective, material practice and counterpublic in the United States in ways that have so far received scant critical attention, the injunction to remember the Commune was not simply a leftist pastime or structure of radical international feeling. Indeed, the desire to witness it, and the lingering sense of possession of its memory and the Paris it scarred, was also viscerally underwritten by an extra-national attachment to Paris and a form of internationalism that allows Americans to feel we possess places that aren't ours and support state backed violence when “civilization” is under threat.13 The New York Times, for example, insisted in 1871 that the Commune waged war “against civilization itself” and that claim was resoundingly echoed across the U.S. press in the 1870s.14 Both these versions of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century internationalism—the radical and the reactive—were in turn facilitated by the Commune’s virality as a sensation circulating across U.S. culture by way of ongoing newspaper coverage and literary representations as well as spectacles and pageants.

My recently published book, Sensational Internationalism (Edinburgh UP, October 2016), recovers this now largely forgotten story of the Paris Commune’s spectacular afterlife as specter and spectacle in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American culture. In so doing, it aims to remap the borders of transatlantic feeling and resituate the role of international memory in U.S. culture in the long nineteenth century and beyond. In putting 1871—and, more particularly, the Paris Commune’s “audacious internationalism”—back on the map of American literary and cultural studies, this book contributes to the conversation begun by the seminal work of Michael Rogin and Larry J. Reynolds to recover the influence of the European uprisings of 1848 on the literary imagination of writers like Emerson and Melville and the literary history of the American Renaissance as well as more recent work to trace what Anna Brickhouse has termed the lingering “Franco-Africanist shadow” on American literary and cultural history in the wake of the Haitian Revolution.15 But Sensational Internationalism offers another angle on that story of distant uprisings resounding at home: namely, how a foreign revolution came back to life as a domestic commodity, and why for decades another nation’s memory came to feel so much our own. Chronicling the Commune’s returns across a surprisingly vast and visually striking archive of periodical poems and illustrations, panoramic spectacles, children’s adventure fiction, popular and canonical novels, political pamphlets, avant-garde theater productions, and radical pulp, my book argues that the Commune became, for writers and readers across virtually all classes and political persuasions, a critical locus for re-occupying both radical and mainstream memory of revolution and empire, a key site for negotiating post-bellum gender trouble and regional reconciliation, and a vital terrain for rethinking Paris—and what it meant to be an American there—in U.S. fiction and culture.

Whereas scholars of memory in United States literature and history have primarily focused on the domestic contours of events, centering their attention on, for example, the Alamo, the Civil War, Vietnam, and 9/11, Sensational Internationalism reveals the necessity of approaching cultural memory as a phenomenon within and beyond the nation and, in turn, rethinking various media—in particular, the newspaper, the panorama, and the novel—as crucial sites for the construction not simply of national but of international—I’m tempted to say extra-national—memory.16 For as I show, the tenacity of the Commune’s second life does not simply attest to its continuing usefulness in American culture for making sense of revolutions past and future: it also crucially reverses the assumption that transnational circuits of memory—that memory without borders, as it were—are uniquely or definitively a product of our own hyper-mediated historical moment.17

What little attention that has been paid to the Commune’s unexpected second life in America by historians has so far focused almost exclusively on the relationship between the events in Paris and anxieties about labor unrest at home and these accounts suggest the Commune’s presence begins to fade in the aftermath of the failure of the Great Strike of 1877.18 As Philip M. Katz elaborates in his compelling study of Americans and the Paris Commune, while “a lurid image of the Commune continued to haunt [the mainstream U.S.] vision of domestic social unrest…even this image dimmed shortly after the Great Strike, as the image of the Commune ceased to be an active force in American culture,” and after 1877 only “foreign-born workers—and not even all of them” kept the Commune’s memory alive in the U.S.19 My book revises this narrative by revealing the ways the Commune as spectacle and specter continued to garner a variety of literary and affective responses well into the 1930s, and always meant more than labor in U.S. memory. But it also contributes to recent work in American Studies on the global dimensions of late nineteenth and early-twentieth century U.S. radicalisms by taking seriously the way the Commune’s sensational presence in print, visual, and performance culture offered pre-Popular Front radicals a foundational blueprint for action and touchstone for internationalist feeling.20 In so doing, I address a critical ongoing blind spot in American Studies by extending the borders of transatlantic affiliation beyond the confines of Anglo-American attachments.

In particular, I analyze the ways that the specter of the Commune took up residence in the U.S., haunting and electrifying even those writers and readers who never left home. My book thus draws attention to the way that in the Gilded Age and beyond, Francophilia was as much a structure of feeling that shaped Americanness as was the Anglophilia to which Elisa Tamarkin’s work has drawn attention and that Americanist scholars have come to more commonly associate with this period. Like Tamarkin, I’m interested in the “productive vertigo” of extra-national feelings, or more precisely, in how and why Americans “feel the deepest reality of attachment without the reality behind it.”21 I draw on her reading of the ways we might be “the most national while lost in fantasies of belonging elsewhere” in order to understand the ways that transatlantic feeling might equally work to complicate and counter our national attachments (and fantasies).22 I term this extra-national structure of feeling “sensational internationalism” rather than simply Francophilia to highlight both a flux in national feeling and the role of a variety of print and visual media in shaping the memory culture around Paris and the Commune that sustained it for over five decades.

  • 1. Qtd. in Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (New York: F. M. Lupton, 1858), 125
  • 2. Paul Shorey, “The Paris Commune,” The Dial, 16 March 1896:167
  • 3. The Century Illustrated Magazine, for example, ran three extensive features on the Paris Commune between 1892 and 1901: a front-page, two-part series by celebrated British war correspondent Archibald Forbes (whom the New York Times called, in 1899, “the most notable war correspondent now living”), an explicit rejoinder to Forbes’ 1892 piece published nearly a decade later by William Trant, a British-Canadian economist who, like Forbes, had covered the Commune firsthand, and an account of what an “American Girl” saw of the Commune. The latter is noteworthy for offering readers a lengthy but extremely limited account of the events it claims to resurrect for display. Indeed, given the author’s primarily parlor-side view of the event, the article might more aptly be titled “What an American Girl Didn’t See of the Commune.” Yet the piece was printed in a highly respected American magazine with some 200,000 subscribers, and warranted specific notice in both the Review of Reviews and the Century’s own advertisements. That it did so suggests that high-brow American readers in the 1890s might be hooked by its title alone—by, in other words, its promise of yet another (American) sighting of the Commune.
  • 4. Kaplan argues that American imperialists like Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge “saw imperial warfare as an opportunity for the American man to rescue himself from the threatening forces of industrialization and feminization at home.” See in The Anarchy of Empire, 92-3. Bederman similarly details the way in which anxieties about American masculinity and racial superiority were twinned in America’s fears about the declining frontier. She suggests in turn that “Anglo-Saxonist imperialists insisted that civilized white men had a racial genius for self-government which necessitated the conquest of more ‘primitive’ darker races.” See in Manliness and Civilization, 22. In my reading of American Commune romances, the Communards are primitivized and racialized so as to more easily demonstrate their unsuitability to self-governance in the logic of these novels.
  • 5. Oddly, the Great Fade Out of the Commune in American memory is, for historian Philip Katz, a product of it being “too firmly linked to what can be called the age of democratic civil wars” (191). It is his contention then that precisely because the Commune became “a focal point in America’s changing view of popular uprisings abroad, which shifted “from the romantic traditions of rebellion towards the new traditions of social revolution and terrorism; [a shift] inspired by fears of domestic unrest” it eventually faded from view (Katz 192). 1877 marks, in this narrative, the end not only of Reconstruction but of hope, and with it the “age of democratic civil wars, at least for Americans” (Katz 192). But this contention does not account for the literary resurgence of the Commune in the 1890s, and largely glosses over the fact that the struggle for what would constitute a democratic civil war was far from settled in 1877.
  • 6. Ads for “Paris, from Empire to Commune” ran in various New York papers. See for example The Evening World 3 July 1891: 3 and The Sun July 3, 1891: 10. For more on Pain, “self-proclaimed ‘pyrotechnist of her Majesty the Queen,’” who spent twenty-five years staging elaborate pyrotechnic spectacles centered on historical cataclysms such as “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada,” “The Destruction of Pompeii” and “The Bombardment of Alexandria” at Coney Island, see Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground. Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2002: 34. For a further discussion of the visual technics of Pain’s pyrodramas in the context of the emergence of the cinema, as well as a reading of Pain’s “Last Days of Pompeii,” see Nick Yablon, “‘A Picture Painted in Fire’: Pain’s Reenactments of the Last Days of Pompeii, 1879-1914.” Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Eds. Victoria C. Gardner Coates and Jon L. Seydl. Getty Publications, 2007. Print.
  • 7. “Paris,” The Ohio Democrat July 8, 1893: 1.
  • 8. See “Fireworks Draw Well,” Rocky Mountain News June 28, 1894: 5. For a further discussion of the Coney Island debut of “Paris, From Empire to Commune,” see for example “Fireworks at Manhattan Beach,” The Sun 26 June 1891: 2; “Our Theaters Next Week,” The New York Evening World 4 July 1891: 2; “Fireworks at Manhattan,” The New York Times September 8, 1891: 5.
  • 9. See The Brooklyn Daily Eagle August 21, 1891: 2 and “News of the Theater,” The Sun August 2, 1891: 15.
  • 10. Although the term “radical” emerged in this period to describe the “Radical Republicans” who approved the strongest measures against the South following the Civil War, the term circulated in media coverage of anarchists and labor activity although these figures were more often than not labeled “agitators” or “agitatresses” by newspapers in the pre-Popular Front era. I follow Shelley S. Streeby, Mary Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Timothy Messer-Kruse in using the term in relation to nineteenth-century activists and agitators, and like cultural historian Marcella Benevinci, I employ it to gesture to “the whole range of class-based ideologies associated with the European Left: anarchism, socialism, syndicalism, and communism" (2), as well as the more motley crew of postbellum leftist reformers that historian Timothy Messer-Kruse has dubbed the “Yankee International.”
  • 11. Communal Luxury, 11.
  • 12. “Would Hang Capitalists: Declaration Made at a Socialist Rally." March 17, 1902: 9
  • 13. Merriman’s recent study of the Commune argues that the most lasting legacy of the uprising’s bloody suppression has been state-backed massacres and our willingness to broker them. See Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune.
  • 14. “The Commune and Liberty,” The New York Times May 31, 1871: 4
  • 15. See Rogin, Subversive Genealogy and Reynolds, European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance. On the political reverberations of 1848, see Roberts, Distant Revolution. On the Haitian revolution and American literary and cultural history, see Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere; Drexler and Dillon, The Haitian Revolution and The Early United States; White, Encountering Revolution; and Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War.
  • 16. See, for example, Blight, Race and Reunion; Cloyd, Haunted by Atrocity; Shackel, Memory in Black & White; Romano and Raiford, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory; Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory; Bodnar, The “Good War” in American Memory; Sturken, Tangled Memories and Tourists of History; Doss, Memorial Mania, Flores, Remembering the Alamo, and Kropp, California Vieja.
  • 17. Andreas Huyssen argues that “historical memory is not what it used to be” because of the ways that “untold recent and not so recent pasts impinge on the present” through new media technologies—and thus “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries.” See Present Pasts, 1.
  • 18. A number of historians in urban culture and labor history (Christine Stansell, Frank Donner, Gerald Grob, Samuel Bernstein, Heather Cox Richardson, among them) have detailed the ways in which the Commune’s specter closely shadowed American urban reform movements, repeatedly resurfacing in postbellum discourses on crime, strike-breaking, Red-baiting and Reconstruction. But in these accounts the Commune’s continuing cultural reverberations are consistently figured as synonymous with and cipher for only the very real anxieties about Gilded Age urbanization and labor agitation, and most often linked to the unprecedented upheaval of the Great Strike of 1877. As Nell Irvin Painter emphasizes, “the Commune, with its scenes of violent confrontation, served as the prevailing image for Americans faced with labor unrest.” See Standing at Armageddon, 18.
  • 19. Katz, From Appomattox to Montmartre, 187 and 186.
  • 20. See Streeby, Radical Sensations: World Movements, Violence, and Visual Culture.
  • 21. Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, 1 and xix.
  • 22. Ibid., 1.