By Invitation

When Paris Was Reno: American Divorce Tourism in the City of Light, 1920-1927

It was one of the Franco-American scandals of the 1920s. It brought Americans on an eastward ho to undo in Paris what had been wrought in America.  It led to questionable legal practices at the Paris bar and diplomatic tensions over cultural practices.  It is a little-known episode in the history of divorce as well as the history of tourism:1 American couples crossing the Atlantic to untie the knot, or to “[seek] relief from matrimonial infelicity,” as one article deftly put it.2  But the Paris divorce scandal is also revealing for the ways in which it illustrates the dual image of a city known for its dangers but also its freedoms.3

Called a “Paris divorce” as seen from the U.S., named “les divorces américains” from the French perspective, traveling to Paris for a divorce became all the rage in the early 1920s, and “the reputation of Paris divorcées [did] not [suffer] one jot” in the best New York circles.4 Au contraire. “Divorce havens” are nothing new, but at a time when rising divorce rates were increasingly castigated by prelates and publicists in both the United States and France as a scourge of modern life, the journalistic spotlight turned on the curious case of well-to-do Americans traveling to France to get divorced.5


New York Times headline, 1927: The Paris Divorce Mill Grinds Again
Thomas Russell, "The Paris Divorce Mill Grinds Again." New York Times, 23 October 1927.


One of the most well-known Paris divorce cases occurred before the fad began and was atypical in that it concerned two well-known residents of the American colony in Paris rather than merely short-term visitors.  Frank Jay Gould6 and his (second) wife Edith had lived in Paris for five years when Edith sued for divorce there in 1919 on grounds of infidelity. The suit was dropped for lack of evidence. Several months later, however, Frank returned the compliment, suing her for adultery, which she admitted. They were divorced in France (and he later married the writer and salonnière Florence La Caze and remained in France until his death in 1956), but Edith later contested the divorce by questioning the jurisdiction of the French courts over an American couple.  Ultimately, the highest French appeal court, the Court of Cassation, and later the Supreme Court of the State of New York both confirmed the validity of the Paris judgment on grounds, among others, of the couple’s bona fide residence in the city and of Edith having initiated legal procedures there.7 The Courts did warn however that the cause of divorce had to be recognized by the home state (New York) and that domicile (abroad) had to be effective.  In the case of the American divorce wave several years later, the French courts seemed to turn a blind eye to the latter requirement.

The "veritable industry" of what could be called divorce tourism seems to have been initiated rather by an American opera singer’s divorce from her American millionaire husband in Paris in 1922.8 The ease with which they were able to undo their marital bonds became public knowledge, and copycat divorces ensued.  Two Parisian women lawyers interviewed in the 1980s remembered the interwar “temps des divorces américains” with a smile: it kept their Law Offices of S.G. Archibald and other American lawyers in Paris busy for several years.9 The phenomenon was however more a specialty of the peripatetic elite than that of the more settled residential American colony (although the latter divorced as well). During the height of the Paris divorce fad, a large number of the divorcees came from New York State, although the East Coast was not alone in supplying plaintiffs. And a clear majority of the cases were initiated by women,10 one of whom explained that “she was tired of supporting her ne’er-do-well husband, and so set out for Paris, ordering him to follow her.”11  It meant renting a place in Paris to prove domicile and showing up before a French judge to attest that reconciliation was impossible. Even the wife of Rudolfo Guglielmi, aka Rudolph Valentino, chose Paris to divorce that quintessential silent film Latin lover.12

The comparison between Paris and Reno is not just due to the post-facto facetiousness of a historian. It was often mentioned in the press at the time, as divorce itineraries changed course. Contrary to Nevada, where state law began to require six months’ residence, French courts, while insisting on domicile, did not specify the length of time required for residence. In any case, as one commentator pointed out, if one had to spend time somewhere in order to effect the divorce, Paris’s allure “with its gay nights, its sleek gigolos, its secret courts, its discreet lawyers"13 was stiff competition for Reno.

“Divorce in two weeks – strictly confidential.”14 The advantages of the Paris divorce were celerity and secrecy: “No delay, no peeping detectives.”15 Between 1922 and 1929, some 800 American divorces were pronounced in French courts.16 It became more chic to divorce there than in Mexico or Nevada. A Paris divorce could cost the litigant from $2,000-3,000 (cheaper than Paris clothing, as one vicar exclaimed),17 but it could run up to $10,000 when it included leasing an apartment to prove residence, bribing the concierge, paying off other tips and the fees of at least four lawyers (an American solicitor and a French barrister for each party), not to mention eventually paying a Frenchwoman who had gone into the business of being named as the “other woman.”18 American law firms in Paris helped the parties find an apartment or sign a rental agreement in order for the soon-to-be-short-lived couple to establish residence. Witnesses had to be found and insulting letters procured. The whole process was not cheap, but price did not seem to matter.

Divorce in France, initially instituted during the French Revolution, had been abolished shortly thereafter by Napoleon. It was not re-established until the early Third Republic, leading one French historian to comment wryly that “the lawyer replaced the revolver and vitriol.”19 Under the law of 1884 legalizing divorce in France, there was no requirement of a fixed period of residence, and grounds for divorce were relatively liberal, ranging from adultery, desertion, and violence to injure grave (grave moral injury). The latter in particular allowed for a wide range of reasons, including drunkenness and nagging – especially if it were in public.  Furthermore, French divorce hearings were secret.  Reporters were not allowed, witnesses were seldom called, and there was “no distasteful vilification”20 so frequent in American divorce proceedings. “The good taste of the French extended even to the court records, in which a co-respondent’s name was often designated by initials only.”21

Domicile rather than citizenship played a key role in both marriage and divorce of Americans in France. Since state rather than federal law regulates marriage and divorce in the United States, American lawyers in France had to draw up certificats de coutume (certificates of national custom) to explain/prove the U.S. situation before the French court. Since only domicile confers “citizenship” in a state, once a resident claimed domicile abroad, U.S. state jurisdiction no longer applied, and, in the absence of federal laws regulating marriage and divorce, they had to be adjudicated within the jurisdiction of the new domicile, i.e. Paris.  As one American lawyer in Paris put it succinctly for the French court, confirming French jurisdiction:

“When an American citizen leaves his domicile to settle in a foreign country, he ceases to be a citizen of one of the states of the union, although he continues to be a citizen of the United States of America. Consequently, there exists no national [U.S.] law to which he could apply with regard to divorce.”22

Furthermore, both countries used and required different sets of documentary proof.  In the event of an impending marriage, for example, American lawyers in Paris had to provide documents that could serve in lieu of a French état-civil.  When Wallis Warfield Simpson and Son Altesse Royale le Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, aka the Duke of Windsor, prepared to get married in France in 1937, an American lawyer at Archibald’s law firm, Gething C. Miller, filed an affidavit attesting to an acte de notoriété which had been pledged before the American consulate: Katherine Moore Rogers had filed the acte which, given that the state of Pennsylvania had no état civil and that Wallis Simpson’s parents were both dead, was submitted as legal proof of Wallis Warfield’s birth in Monterey, Pennsylvania, in 1896.23 Lawyers for American clients had to attest that an individual had indeed been born as claimed, that he or she had reached their majority in the state of which they were a “citizen,” and that they had no need of parental consent to contract a marriage. The affidavits also had to assure the French government that the interested party’s home state did not require the publishing of banns.24

In the case of divorce, lawyers like Miller testified that there was no federal divorce law in the United States and that domicile therefore constituted jurisdiction. For Americans living in France, that meant France.  Nevertheless, for their divorce to be recognized in the United States, couples had every interest in ensuring that the cause given was also valid in their home state.  Thus, some lawyers advised their clients to use adultery as grounds, be it true or false, to make sure that the divorce would be recognized at home.25 Some American divorces in Paris were therefore filed on grounds of trumped-up adultery in order to satisfy stricter laws at home (where nagging in public was not sufficient grounds!).

In 1924, the rise in Paris divorces among Americans even led to a minor diplomatic incident.  American clergymen and the New York Times both questioned the probity of this new flurry of divorces and implied that they reflected poorly on the French legal system.  The outcry in the United States led the French Ambassador to the U.S., Jean Jules Jusserand, to take up the matter.  Paris newspapers in turn became outraged that American couples were taking advantage of the French system.  Prime Minister Poincaré ordered an investigation.  An unofficial French memorandum that year reminded presiding judges that petitioners had to have a genuine domicile in Paris (with intent to remain) and that a properly filed certificat de coutume had to show that legal cause was recognized in the parties’ home state.26  This slowed up the procedures somewhat but did not halt the flow.

The worry about “l’affaire des divorces américains” was not just fear of contagion.  The honor of the French judicial system was at stake, and Parisians were offended at being seen as the new Reno: 

“The City of Reno may desire to be known as the Paris of America, but it is evident that Paris does not wish to be known as the Reno of Europe. Too many good Americans have been going to the French capital, not when they die, but when they want to get divorced.”27

Another investigation into the matter began in June 1927 and finally put a stop to the practice.  An unusual public disciplinary hearing in 1928 (the first since 1808) brought several French barristers and bailiffs to court. As described empathetically by the French courtroom reporter, honorable French men in their black robes and red Legion of Honor ribbons were being accused of facilitating the divorces. Pale and emotional, they defended themselves by blaming the American lawyers for whom they worked, in whom they trusted, and who had provided the documentation. It is not our role to act as detectives and check out the truth of domicile, they protested. One of the bailiffs accused of taking bribes to speed up procedures took, however, another line of defense: he argued that such practices had existed since Balzac’s time.28

The accusation roiled the French court, worried, as one judge exclaimed, that the international reputation of the French legal system was at stake. An article in Le Figaro had called it “un scandale,” and, at the July 21st session of the court, the President of the tribunal, Wattinne, his voice “âpre et sévère, presque violente,” exclaimed: “Voyez l’étendu du mal fait à la justice française!” “Elle est bafouée à l’étranger!” However, the Procureur de la République sought to calm things down by insisting that it was neither a scandale nor a blot on the honor of the French judicial system. Audible relief was palpable in the audience. And the defense lawyers insisted that, after all, the men involved had not received exorbitant payments; “le roi ‘dollar’” was not at work this time.29 The French barristers had done most of the work but had received only one-third of the fees.

In the end, some of the court officials received minor penalties, and some French lawyers were suspended from practice for 2-8 months; three others were formally scolded. The bulk of opprobrium was placed on unscrupulous American lawyers. Three of them were publicly reprimanded in the proceeding, although, true to form, they were not named in the French press.30 They were however unmasked by the New York Times: Dudley Field Malone; Benjamin H. Conner, none other than the recent past President of the American Chamber of Commerce; and Charles G. Loeb, future president of the ACC and eminent author of a 500-page treatise on the Legal Status of American Corporations in France that had been prefaced by none other than the former French Prime Minister, René Viviani.31 Foreign divorces were shifted to a special section of one of the courts, henceforth presided over by a judge with reputedly excellent English and knowledge of U.S. states’ divorce laws.32 The divorce flow seems to have reverted back to Mexico and Nevada.  Economics did the rest, as the Depression kept many formerly-wealthy but newly-poor divorce-prone Americans closer to home. 33

The affair of the Paris divorces was widely commented upon both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times called it the “Paris divorce mill,” Le Figaro titled one of its articles “Un scandale du Palais.” In the U.S. as in France, these Atlantic-crossing divorces only fed the general lament about the increase of divorce across the board.  Critics in both countries bemoaned the fact that marriage, like divorce, had become too easy and needed to be made more difficult: banns should be published to give people time to reflect on the former, residence laws needed to be enforced to prevent jurisdiction-hopping for the latter. However, the greater number of divorces in the United States was a particular matter of concern: 70 divorces per 100,000 in France in 1922 compared to 135 per 100,000 in the United States.34 The U.S. divorce rate was characterized as a plague, complicated by the lack of uniformity from one state to another and the deplorable ease of changing jurisdiction in a country where people moved so often.  And many French critics worried about contamination.  Already in 1892, Jules Clarétie had called divorce an American import, a theme reprised during the 1920s legal scandal.  French commentators reiterated their criticism of American moeurs and the propensity to divorce there: “A vrai dire, la facilité avec laquelle on divorce aux États-Unis n’a d’égale que la facilité avec laquelle on s’y marie. [Frankly, the ease with which they divorce in the United States is only equalled by the ease with which they marry.]"35

However, if moralists on both sides of the Atlantic fretted over the increase in divorce, discussions about the practice also showed a Franco-American divide with regard to matters of the heart. By the 1920s, two opposing ideas of divorce became apparent. As mentioned above, the scandal broke in New York largely via the concerns of clergymen there, reported by the New York Times, and setting into motion an investigation. Nevertheless, a majority of French observers (and occasional Americans) responded by arguing that divorce was fundamentally a question of freedom, and that the French conception of abstract justice and individual liberty was broader and protected that liberty better than in the United States.36 Greater freedom was tolerated, both within marriage and with the possibility of ending it: “it is immoral to oblige two people who hate each other to live together to the end of their days.”37

With a shrug of the Gallic shoulders at the court scandal, one French journalist pointed out that after all none of the American divorces had been contested. So what was the problem? If people want to get divorced, let them. Yes, there is too much divorce, Georges Clarétie, son of Jules and a lawyer, conceded in his reportage in Le Figaro of the Paris court proceedings, but he concluded:

Oui, on divorce trop. Oui, on n’a plus le respect de la vie conjugale et du foyer. Oui, les enfants souffrent trop des querelles des parents. C’est un fait. Il est douloureux, il est pénible. Mais qu’y faire ? Ce n’est pas la loi, ce n’est pas la procédure qu’il faut modifier, ce sont les mœurs. Et c’est bien plus difficile. Et c’est notre époque qui doit faire son examen de conscience, et se frapper la poitrine. ‘Plus ibi boni mores. Quam ubi boni leges,’ disait déjà Tacite il y a bien longtemps.

[Yes, there is too much divorce. Yes, we have lost respect for married and domestic life. Yes, children suffer unduly from their parents' disagreements. It's a fact. It is painful, it is regrettable. But what can be done? It is neither the law nor procedure that must be modified, but mores. And that is much more dfficult. And it is the age that must examine its conscience, and strike its breast. "Where there are good morals, there are good laws," Tacitus already said long ago.]38


New York Times headline, 1928: The Paris Divorce Mill Is Overhauled
Lansing Warren, "The Paris Divorce Mill Is Overhauled." New York Times, 5 August 1928.


If during the American divorce scandal some French worried that Americans found their moral standards lax, some American observers, and not just the divorcees, approved of the more liberal French divorce law and moeurs. One American journalist coolly analyzed the situation by arguing that the more broadminded divorce law in France was to its credit (although noting in passing that this was somewhat surprising for a Roman Catholic country). In her 1927 Harper’s Magazine article entitled “The Market Value of a Paris Divorce,” the well-known journalist Dorothy Dunbar Bromley explained that while the French have great respect for the institution of marriage, they also “believe in a laissez-faire attitude toward other people’s personal life.”39 Indeed, as she pointed out, divorce rates were still much lower in France than in the United States, thanks to greater liberty within the marriage and the acceptance of extra-marital liaisons as long as they were discreet. But the major lesson of these divorces for Bromley was that the United States should pass more civilized divorce laws, notably forbidding all publicity, so as not to “force our citizens to seek questionable foreign decrees”40 which jeopardize second marriages and inheritances.  After all, “property rights are the crux of the whole matter,” she added.41 In the end, the Paris divorces became a morality tale for divorce reform.  They were used to argue – however unsuccessfully – for a national, standardized divorce law in the United States.42

But, above all, the “Paris divorce” scandal – as seen from the United States – shows once again how the City of Light could be a foil for contrasting images of danger and freedom. If clergymen and polemicists saw the divorce mill as confirming the danger of loose manners and lax laws in the French capital – from sex to the courts – the divorcing couples, along with divorce reformers in the U.S., saw French attitudes and Parisian courts as an opportunity for greater freedom. Freedom to divorce, freedom to do so without nosy neighbors. Freedom to dissolve the marriage bonds, banns or (k)not.




  • 1. On American tourism to France, see Harvey Levenstein, Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); idem, We’ll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Christopher Endy, Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). See also Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). On divorce in France, see, e.g., Edward Berenson, “The Politics of Divorce in France of the Belle Époque,” American Historical Review, 93:1 (February 1988), 31-55; and idem, The Trial of Madame Caillaux (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), chap. 4; cf. James F. McMillan, Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society, 1870-1940 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 27-28; Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Theresa McBride, “Divorce and the Republican Family,” in Gender and the Politics of Social Reform in France, 1870-1914, ed. Elinor Accampo, Rachel Fuchs, and Mary Lynn Stewart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 59-81.
  • 2. “Paris Now a Mecca of Divorce Hunters,” New York Times [NYT], July 30, 1922.
  • 3. Nancy L. Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 79-84. In the book, I concentrated on American residents rather than tourists. For the divorce of Americans resident in Paris, see pp. 97-108.
  • 4. Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, “The Market Value of a Paris Divorce,” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 154 (May 1927), 669-681, 679. See also Lindell T. Bates, “The Divorce of Americans in France,” Law and Contemporary Problems 2 (1935), 322-328.
  • 5. Indiana, for example, is cited as a divorce haven several times in Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  • 6. Son of Jay and brother of Anna.
  • 7. Not to mention that France was the place of Mrs. Gould’s admitted adultery. Gould case discussed by Bromley, “Market Value,” 675.
  • 8. Bromley, “Market Value,” 672. Another account dates the first Americans’ divorce in Paris to 1914: “France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, February 17, 1924.
  • 9. Interviews, Mme. Béraud-Villars, June 3, 1983, Mme. Brigat, July 20, 1983, Paris. Although I never located a specific file on “Divorces,” there was a small one on “Mariages,” and that is where I found model certificats de coutume drawn up for both marriages and divorces. VD3, Archives 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald. The divorce files were “hidden” under the names of the clients. See Nancy L. Green (with Rebecca Fite), “The Law Offices of S.G. Archibald: A Century of International Law Practice” (unpublished manuscript, 2000), 13-16. See also Maureen Montgomery, “Gilded Prostitution”: Status, Money and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 (New York: Routledge, 1989).
  • 10. “Increase in Divorces Stirs the Lawmakers,” NYT, Mar. 14, 1926; and “American Divorces Keep Paris Busy,” NYT, January 31, 1927
  • 11. Bromley, “Market Value,” 673. Cf. Le Figaro, July 22, 1928.
  • 12. "American Divorces Keep Paris Busy," NYT, January 31, 1927.
  • 13. Bromley, “Market Value,” 679.
  • 14. Advertisement cited in Bromley, “Market Value,” 670.
  • 15. “France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, February 17, 1924.
  • 16. Calculated from Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 322.
  • 17. “Hits Paris Divorces in Friday Sermon [at St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel in New York],” NYT, May 31, 1923.
  • 18. Bromley, “Market Value,” 676.
  • 19. Anne-Marie Sohn, “The Golden Age of Male Adultery: The Third Republic,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 469-490, 484.
  • 20. Bromley, “Market Value,” 672.
  • 21. Bromley, “Market Value,” 671.
  • 22. Affidavit signed by Gething Miller, June 16, 1934; cf. another form prepared by HG/SC 9/3/37, both in VD3, Archive 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald.
  • 23. Green (with Fite), “The Law Offices of SGA,” chap. 2, p. 32.
  • 24. E.g., VD3, Archives 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald.
  • 25. Bromley, “Market Value,” 676.  
  • 26. Bromley, “Market Value,” 673-674.
  • 27. "Too Much for Paris,” NYT, February 8, 1924.
  • 28. “Un scandale au Palais,” Le Figaro, July 9, 1928 ; “Gazette des Tribuanaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 25, 1928, p. 3
  • 29. “Gazette des tribunaux – Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 22, 1928.
  • 30. Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 328.
  • 31. “Scores Americans in Divorce Inquiry,” NYT, July 22, 1928; Charles Gerson Loeb, Legal Status of American Corporations in France (Paris: The Lecram Press, 1922).
  • 32. “Paris Courts Reform American Divorces,” NYT, August 20, 1927; “French Form Court for Alien Divorces,” NYT, March 11, 1928.
  • 33. Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 328.  
  • 34. Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 322.
  • 35. Jules Clarétie, L’Américaine (Paris: Dentu, 1892), 4 ; Charles Mercier, “La plaie du divorce aux États-Unis,” Le Figaro, September 5, 1927.
  • 36. “France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, Feb. 17, 1924; “The French View of the Divorce Issue,” NYT, July 10, 1927.
  • 37. "Paris May Tighten Divorce Procedure,” NYT, July 10, 1927.
  • 38. Georges Clarétie, “Gazette des Tribunaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 22, 1928, p. 2. The ultimate decisions were held behind closed doors. “Gazette des Tribunaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, November 1, 1928, p. 2.
  • 39. Bromley, “Market Value,” 675. Bromley herself divorced – in New York? -- in 1924.
  • 40. Bromley, “Market Value,” 681.
  • 41. Bromley, “Market Value,” 680.
  • 42. “Would Bar Divorce Abroad,” NYT, March 7, 1926.

Replotting the Romance of Paris: Americans and the Commune

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.

Roman Osminkin: Poetry and Prose


A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow


Having set off for Moscow after a dinner with friends, the hero awakens outside of Kolpino from an intolerable rocking. Seeing in front of him the windshield bespattered with vomit, he takes some effort to wake up a bum sleeping in a cardboard box and asks him to wash his ride, but is turned down because of the late hour. The hero is forced to give the bum money for vodka in order to continue his journey.


In Tosna the hero agrees to give a lift to a man with shifty eyes, who turns out to be a hustler supplying counterfeit driver’s licenses and registrations for shady characters with cars of the same make. Saying he doesn’t feel well, the hero drops him off at the nearest gas station.


On the way from Tosna to Liuban’ the traveller sees a peasant standing on the side of the road with his pants down and displaying his ass to passing cars “with great care,” even though it is November and drizzling. The peasant tells him that six days a week his family sells pickled goods and jams on the roadside so as not to die of hunger, but since there still isn’t enough money, he is obliged to sell his ass on Sundays, even though it’s a sin. The hero reflects on the brutality of f…ots and simultaneously reproaches himself, because he too has a friend named Ch., over whom he has power.


In Chudov his friend Ch. catches up with the hero and tells him why he had to leave Petersburg in a hurry. For the sake of diversion, Ch. decided to ride his scooter from Kronstadt to Sestroretsk. On the road, two meatheads in Hummers decided to have some fun with him and squeezed his scooter between their cars. Fortunately, there was a Highway Patrol station just a verst and a half away. The Hummers abandoned their victim-plaything and sped away, while Ch., pale and scratched up, made straight for the traffic cop. The latter, however, had chosen that moment for his nap, and the sergeant, his underling, did not dare wake him. When, through his own efforts, Ch. managed to wake the officer up, the latter said: “It’s not my responsibility.” Unable to find any sympathy for what had happened from the policemen of Petersburg, he decided to quit the city forever.


On the road from Chudov to Spasskaia Polist’ the hero picks up a man with honest eyes, who tells him his sad story. Having trusted his business partner in the purchase of some real estate, he was deceived, deprived of his entire fortune and brought before a criminal court. Upset by what had happened, his wife went into early labor and died three days later, along with her premature child. Seeing that he was about to be taken into custody, his friends lowered him down from the window with sheets and told him to run “where his legs would carry him.” The hero is touched by his travel companion’s story, and he wonders how to bring the case to the attention of the highest court, “for only that court is impartial.” Realizing that he is powerless to help the poor man, the hero imagines himself to be a supreme leader with a seemingly flourishing government, and everyone singing his praises. But then an underage girl fellating a long-haul trucker by the side of the road lifts the veil from the leader’s eyes, and he sees that his reign was unjust, that his benevolence was wasted on the rich, on flatterers, traitors, and the unworthy. He realizes that power is an obligation to safeguard the law and justice. But all of this turns out to be only a dream.


At the Podberezye station the hero meets a graduate student, who complains about the quality of contemporary education, which aims to satisfy market demand with the mass production of narrowly trained specialists. Genuine scholarship has been replaced with servility, and instead of critical thinking students master careerist cunning. The hero reflects on science and scholarly work, the goal of which he sees as making a host of discoveries, bringing glory to himself and his country.


Having arrived at Novgorod, the hero recalls that in the old days the city was ruled by the people, and questions Putin’s right to appoint his own viceroys to Novgorod. “But what avails right, when might prevails?” – he asks. Taking a break from his reflections, the hero goes to dine at his pal Karp’s, formerly a racketeer working the market, now a local lawmaker. They launch into a conversation on trade matters, and the traveler realizes that the recently instituted anti-trust laws do not ensure honesty, but on the contrary, facilitate easy money-making and theft.


Аt the Zaitsev post office the hero meets an old friend, Mr. Krestiankin, who used to serve in the bureau of criminal investigation. When an anti-extremism center was established on the model of this bureau, he was forced to retire, since it was clear that he would be of no use to his fatherland at the new center. He saw only cruelty, corruption, and injustice, when the opposite was needed. Krestiankin recounted a story about a cruel police boss, whose son raped a young woman from the provinces. Defending his bride, the girl’s fiancé cracked the rapist’s skull. The groom had several friends with him too, and, according to the criminal code, the storyteller was supposed to give all of them huge prison sentences. He tried to acquit the young men, but the rapist’s father put the heat on the court and they all went to prison.


Passing by a cemetery in Yazhelbitsy, the hero sees a funeral in progress. The father of the deceased sobs by the grave, saying that he is his son’s murderer, for he “poured HIV into him at conception.” The hero feels that he is listening to his own condemnation. Having indulged in promiscuity in his youth, he contracted chronic hepatitis and now fears that he will pass it on to his children. Reflecting on who is responsible for the spread of AIDS, the traveler blames the government, which doesn’t help the infected and doesn’t have drug use prevention programs.


In Edrovo the hero meets a young peasant woman named Aniuta; he speaks with her about her family and ex-fiancé, who came back from the army an invalid. In order to help him, she married a rich man, who does whatever he pleases with her, and she doesn’t dare defy him, because otherwise there will be no money for the surgery. The hero is amazed at how much nobility there is in the peasant woman’s way of thinking. He condemns the government, which doesn’t look after its own sons, and reflects on modern marriage, which forces eighteen-year-old girls to become the property of businessmen with deep pockets. Equality—that is the foundation of family life, he thinks.


On the road to Khotilovo, the hero is visited by thoughts about the injustice of exploiting immigrant labor. The fact that one man can enslave another, he calls a “beastly habit”: “slavery is a crime,” he says. Only he who works the land or builds houses has a right to them. And no government with several million citizens who are deprived of that title can “call itself blessed.”


In Torzhk the hero meets a man, on his way to Moscow with a letter about allowing an independent Internet portal to function again, free from censorship. They discuss the intransitive properties of television and the ill effects of censorship, which, “like a nanny, leads an infant by the apron strings,” and that “infant”—that is, the spectator—never learns to walk (think) independently. Society should be its own censor: it either acknowledges information’s right to life, or rejects it.


In the village of Gorodnya army conscriptions are taking place, which is the reason behind the weeping among the thronging crowd. Mothers, sisters, brides are crying, seeing off their awkward and sickly youth. But not everyone is dissatisfied with his fate. Some of the young men, the healthiest, smirk insolently behind lowered BMW windows. The army is no threat to them. Others, with the rabid gaze of thugs, are happy to escape their problems with the law and the tedium of village life.


In Peshki the hero contemplates an ordinary residential house and is amazed by the poverty that reigns here. A housewife asks him for a packet of Rollton instant soup to feed her child. In a lyric digression, the author addresses himself to a passing official with a condemning speech: “Hard-hearted official! Look at the children of the residents for whom you are responsible. They are practically naked.” He promises him death by helicopter during a hunt, as it is clear that there will be no justice on earth.


The Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow ends with Luzhkov’s book, TransCapitalism in Russia. The hero alludes to the fact that this book was given to him by someone from Lomonosov University, with whom he had lunch in Tver. In his book Luzhkov focuses mainly on the topic of the global crisis. The author sets himself a bold task: to determine where the origins of the crisis lie, and to find the path by which Russia can escape from it with minimal losses. Amid tormented thoughts about the search for that path for Russia, the hero enters the nation’s first capital.


*   *   *


A little bit of class war

A little bit of red terror

And the painfully familiar features

Of a velvet Thermidor


Inexpressible despair

In the eyes of tired Special Forces

You screamed so loudly from the toilet

As if you’d found the grail


The entire room is drunk

With the sweet medicine of interrogation

You didn’t try to deny a thing

And admitted guilt to the bottom


Oversee and punish

Oversee and punish

Supervise and control

Jawohl, my Putin, jawohl


*   *   *


fucking shame before the working class

sits in my bowels like mineral ore

I shovel it out with bare hands

but shame sinks ever deeper to the bottom

alright then, sit if you like it down there

only don’t shame me in the mornings

mornings I’m not cool with shame

and with great labor remember labor

mornings I sleep and watch my dreams

in them all workers are equal

godlike now and everlasting

all their needs are met

no one spits on grey concrete

blood that tastes of herzegovina flor tobacco

no one herds anyone else

into freight cars in glum columns

and each cigarette stub flying into the dark

illuminates the way for my verse


*   *   *


you know how sometimes you meet an underage girl

and instantly pull a stern face 

quickly, walk past here, child

you reek of sexual maturity


but I read the new laws

and you won’t pin pedophilia on me

be you thrice the image of Danaë

your age is imperfect




the new dress is rumpled

champagne bubbles gone

Pushkin Street and Dvortsovaya Square

are all covered with puke


you know how sometimes you meet a foreign agent

and cross the street

so he won’t be tempted

to recruit you


because you read the new laws

human rights is the same as espionage now

if you protect someone’s rights today

tomorrow you’ll sell the motherland


documents are confiscated

inventory strewn about

agents hiding in their kitchens,

like in the good old times


you know how sometimes you meet some lesbians

and right away you make a stern face 

be you thrice the most blameless of maidens

you reek of Gomorrah for versts


and I read the new laws

gay propaganda you won’t pin on me

in Russia you can’t choose your gender

born a broad, then that’s how you’ll die


someone’s kidneys are damaged

and brains concussed

in Tavrichesky garden

they’re strict with reprobates


*   *   *


“where is the world headed, if the head of a top-ten bank is arrested red-handed”


corruption, it’s bad

crisp banknotes obscure the gaze

and conscience does not give a fuck

and shame is not shameful


money has penetrated freedom

you can sell even your mother

who was once so dear

today far cheaper than a whore


and these words of mine

are confirmed by that banker’s face

during the police raid

like a mirror of the world 


it reflects his fall

homo sapiens die for metal

there’s no further crime

that capital isn’t ready for


the banker doesn’t need to play

mephistopheles incarnate

only a pro flush with cash

can fix a tie like that


toying with a pen in his hands

licking its tip

like the sole of the heel

of a secretary the age of his daughter


just yesterday he was remembering

how against the backdrop of ancient ruins

she gifted him with anal

and today they take him away red-handed


if it doesn’t become universal

poetry is good for nothing

and this here mawkish slacker

is just a derivative of the system


as long as decent folk

steer clear of money and rank

poetry’s advice will be:

fight against the root cause


*   *   *


On Method:


 “I think that the most democratic

literature is not one that is comprehensible to everyone, but

one that takes into account all conventional

linguistic gestures.” Dmitry Prigov


Language rages in its tenacity to break through to reality—for today at last, it seems, there are no more barriers left against it: in tweets from the squares, SMS-es from police vans, re-posts of the hottest news, wiki-leaks, letters against and letters in support—this here is life as it is—naked facts, numbers, tables, info-graphics—maximally effective and useful language. The document’s pragmatics and nothing of rhetoric or poetics. Bloggers are like the famous woodcutter of Roland Barthes, for whom “a tree is not a figure, but simply the meaning of the action.”[1] That is, the woodcutter never fails to express himself, because the action itself expresses. For words are the one thing that we produce ourselves.[2] We are only words, and all else is the union and division of elements that long preceded us. But the aforementioned bloggers, who have operated with only words for a long time already, appear to continue unifying and dividing the elements of nature in their production activity, likening language to wood, and the word to the axe. And there’s the rub: since words aren’t “natural” (but completely created by man), they and only they possess the ability to draw man away from his “natural” calling, to obfuscate his functional gestures and rhythms, which are accepted in the “natural” cycles of productions. And all these aforementioned tweets and posts are expressions in the public sphere of language, which means that they are already to a varying degree political and literary expressions. These kinds of expressions, according to Rancière, are capable of possessing all manner of people, to deepen differences, to open new possibilities. But the main thing is that they are capable of circulating without their accompanying author, as blocks of speech—quasibodies—addressing every person they encounter on equal terms, declassifying old hierarchies and simultaneously forming accidental communities, declaring themselves collectives, which with the help of these acts of socialized discourse transform the existing allocated roles, territories, and languages.

On the other hand, what does “we are only words” mean today? According to the post-operaist Paolo Virno, under the conditions of post-Fordism the forces of production become “not only external technical innovations and the informatization of production, but the very immanence of the human ‘brain’ as immeasurable potentiality.” That is, the production of words becomes a self-sufficient procedure of our brains, which is now the main assembly line, issuing forth half-fabricated ideas, affects, and linguistic acts ready for use. But in distinction from real half-fabricated products, the consumption of ideas, affects, and knowledge brings with it the infinite expansion of language and thought, multiplying social and cultural practices. It would seem that the process of post-Fordian labor coincides with its result, that is, the result is not objectified into a product. Thought itself, discourse, becomes a producing “machine.” But here the question arises, what and for whom does it produce? Paradoxically, intellectual labor produces immaterial, linguistic wares that often do not correspond to the real world at all. The media vehicles of this kind of labor have been degraded to the point of being indistinguishable to the naked eye. Their mediation is less and less visible (but for all that, no less significant). Our gaze slides across the surface of the monitor, words and letters appear and disappear, leaving behind no trace, leaving ephemerality. Our interest isn’t sustained by anything, our attention is scattered, our practices of reading and correspondingly writing are simultaneous and extremely fragmentary. That very reality, to whose height of effervescence we just ascended, dissolves, not even leaving us with the signifier by means of which it was just subdued. Again the blank page. But only for an instant. To be immediately filled up with life, as it really is. The main thing is not to stop, not to resist the flow. To live means to communicate. The form is the message. There are no noises in the communication channel. Interference must be eliminated. That boundless network of communication, the additional value of which—be it idea or knowledge—is instantly estranged in favor of the proprietor of the given network.

But what can poetry do, whose communicative function in fact gravitates to a minimum? Is it possible that its destiny is to occasionally jump out from the curb of history and to poke sticks into the wheels of the cart of communication? Or is poetry in essence the temple of language, which can be built apart from the noise of time? No. Nothing purely poetic—that you could touch and say, yes, this belongs to poetry and to nothing else—exists. Poetry resides in the very same language environment as “hostile” profane communication. Moreover, poetry is an invasion into its very essence, a distraction from the “natural” cycle of re-production (and subordination), which, as we have already seen in the case of words, is absolutely artificial. The substance of poetry is the very redundancy of the communication, its critical mass, tearing itself up from within and falling into the residue of a new form. Into these new linguistic forms, recognizing themselves, “homeless” subjects, excluded (often by their own will) from the unitary mass body, can settle. These new social subjects—the emerging pluralities of units irreducible to one another—slip, retreat, commit a multiple “exodus,” manifested in the practices of civil disobedience and the establishment of a new type of relations, bypassing the normativity prescribed by the government. But above all, their slippage and new assembly take place in the impersonal medium of language (cf. utterances—quasi-bodies without a carrier, for Rancière).[3] We frequently speak about the struggle for the right to call the same thing by one word or another. In “The Logic of Sense,” Deleuze writes about the disequilibrium and asymmetry of the resonating series of signifiers and signifieds, where the first always dominate in number, leaving for that very reason the possibility of failure—a place in which a new closure of meaning arises, destructive toward the previous one. Poetry senses these gaps and closures in meaning from afar like nothing else. She feeds on them, like a true “idler” of language, preferring to live hand to mouth, but not distancing a single word from herself. Poetry is the un-alienation of any kind of labor in language—the un-alienation of the very labor of language, which, acquiring in poetry that coveted “life-for-itself,” gifts her to every word, which now becomes itself a new subject—and together, the linguistic plurality of equal, un-alienated word-comrades, ready to come to the aid of thought and the actions of those who take upon themselves the courage and responsibility of action.[4] According to Humboldt, the real word (the word-comrade[5]) is closer than the spoken or printed word. Every lexicon and any phonetics are already nothing but shadows. But the word in its true form always only grazes us. It is that which we are still hoping to say; that which we stubbornly try to hear through the depreciating signs. To attempt to speak already amounts to not keeping silent, but it isn’t yet speech.

Occupy Wall Street had a good slogan about timing: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” The idea here isn’t named, but the doors of time have already been flung open before it, demanding to be named; and that idea, to put it in Heidegger’s terms, erupts into existence, having done weird things in it, and assigns it to being. Only then will existence be manifested as such. And here Boris Eikhenbaum’s hundred-year-old question about the complications of the writer’s practice has no place: from the literary “how to write,” to the real “how to be a writer” (or not to be one: his contemporaries called Aleksandr Vvedensky “without occupation”). Only from a conscious choice “how to be” is it possible to find the necessity of writing in a different way, a new way. To make the journey from form, as a formal search, to method, endowing that search with necessity, conditioned by the impossibility of speaking as before. After all, anything new that is coming into being has to be described in old language, and only the method—that protocol of the rupture between new and old ways of being—has as its poetic task to give name to those feelings, emotions, and practices that obstinately demand life. The success of the poetic task is by no means guaranteed—the new world is by no means bound to demand precisely these words and not others (or make any demands at all) of the poet.[6] The poet deliberately prohibits dreaming (according to Mallarmé, the enemy of his task) from entering into him, but for all that his words literally teem with dreams. The dream inside the poet is encapsulating—it totalizes and leads to catastrophe—but dreams drawn out from the body of the poet, found on the other side of signification, are dream-concepts that possess dis-embodied, deconstructive qualities. (The Conceptualists Lev Rubinshtein and Dmitry Prigov thus deconstructed late Soviet ideology: the first washed away all the dream elements, leaving the naked signs to witness their absolute constructedness, while the second in contrast saturated all known space with dreams, which as a result ceased to carry the meaning prescribed by ideology.)

As Valentin Voloshinov wrote, “it is not the word that is the expression of the inner personality, but the inner personality that is the expressed or the entrapped word.” The congenital capacity for language is pre-individual. But the medium of language is only what makes it possible to move from language as a congenital capacity to the individual speech act, to the “word trapped inside” which the poet as before “writes as he breathes,” but his “breathing” is no longer organized like the breathing of an author as an individuum of flesh and blood, resisting being-towards-death. Instead of a fixed point or source of the poetic word, the poet assembles into a subject every time, which is, as it were, “completely outside of himself”; he builds and molds himself, changes form, is born and reborn, and continues to live after the departure of his vehicle, but now in cultural forms and texts. In the words of Gilbert Simondon, individuation is never completed: the subject is always the struggle of the individualized with the pre-individualized, the singular with the anonymous-universal.

And language, like socialized raw matter, already saturated with certain codes and types of perception and interpretation, never fully becomes the “entrapped words” of the poet, allowing the pre-individual to cast about in searches of some kind of break, displacement, deficiencies, producing the effect of anonymous and uncontrolled speech. The poet’s task is “to find a place and a formula” (“We affirm you, method!” exclaims Rimbaud, saying that he “cannot wait to find a place and a formula”), to develop such a method that would allow this anonymous and uncontrolled speech to become that very word without accompaniment, addressing the other on equal terms. Only by distancing himself from the expression, erasing his traces from the word, renouncing his legal paternity, does the poet offer a form of expression for the new experience, allowing everyone the possibility of sharing that experience and the full range of (sensory) experiences associated with it. This is a kind of direct democracy of the word, when “all conventional linguistic gestures” are taken into account. The word ceases to be only the representative (agent) of a defective action, while the action ceases to be merely an impulse, a motive for the word.[7] They share the same reality—equality of rights—the comradeship of word and action, not reducible to one another, but also not existing without one another.

In “The Age of the Poets,” Alain Badiou speaks of the poetry of method as of that very type of thought that, under the domination of the scientific and/or political seams, takes some of their functions onto itself, without intending to take their place. That kind of poetry “establishes guidelines for thought and offers thought operations unique in their kind.” Badiou contrasts the motive of “operation” to the Romantic themes of “mediation,” contemplation, and speculation. One could argue that the poet, taking on himself tasks that are external to poetry, by that very means betrays her very essence—to strengthen the palpability of signs, concentrating attention on the message as such. But we clarified above that not allowing a dream to enter you does not mean chasing dreams out of your poetry.[8] And the will to method—to the conscious operation of cultivating the “entrapped words,” suggesting to thought “operations unique in their kind”—only gives it that very form of expressing itself. After all, every thought is the performative of thought, any experience at first takes on form only through expression. The poet’s choice of this or that form is in the first place ideologically conditioned. Not ideology in the vulgar sense, as the passive form of reflecting the conditions of its existence, but in Althusser’s sense of ideology, which doesn’t reflect and describe some reality, but imagines and expresses the will (conservative, conformist, reformist, or revolutionary), hope, or nostalgia. Of course, the poet may be unaware of his own ideology, deny it, placing himself outside of ideology (and therefore outside of politics[9]), but that denial will be nothing other than the product of another ideology, as there isn’t any kind of expression outside of ideology (outside of Logos[10]). The poet is not an abstract “selfless scriptorium,” dreaming in the midst of the roar of language, but always the first to realize that only in the word does he have being, movement, and life. And if one follows Althusser’s notion that ideology is always socially material and embodied in practice, then isn’t it more honest to recognize one’s own practices as already ideologically engaged? The essence of engaged expression lies in the fact that, in addition to the analysis of “immanent” forms of writing and techniques, it recognizes itself in the socio-cultural and wider historical context. For the poet of method, the engaged expression is not the betrayal of his poetry, but an “operation unique in its kind,” the only possible form (and place) of thought here and now. Walter Benjamin wrote of Sergey Tretyakov in his famous essay, “The Author as Producer”: “I would like to draw your attention to Sergey Tretyakov and the type of ‘operative’ writer he typifies and embodies. This operative writer gives us a convincing example of the functional dependence between correct political tendencies and progressive literary technique that exists under all circumstances. <…> Tretyakov distinguishes the operative writer from the informative one. His mission is not to inform, but to fight; not to play to the public, but to actively engage it in battle. He realizes his mission with the aid of insights, which he procures through his activities.”

Thus, to conclude our introduction on method, we will give several, perhaps rather blunt but necessary, from our point of view, recommendations to the poet who wishes to avoid getting locked into the “self-sufficient” word, who is afraid of losing his “self.”

Such a poet must realize, first of all, that this very “self-sufficiency” is the effect of his inability to digest a communicative totality. And to go further, recognizing his role in the production of the symbolic, he must expose “self-sufficiency” as a formidable weapon against present language practice (which order is a product of existing forms of social relations).

To this end, the poet must learn to defend and explain his work, rather than to talk starry-eyed about how he just sees things, hears things; how he is not important at all, he is just a medium, and it’s all the voice of the sky, etc. By defending and arguing, the poet comes to occupy a place from which it is possible to survey the borders and discover zones free of the reigning ideologies. If it is necessary, he will penetrate those ideologies and destroy the smoothness of their images and illusions, purveyed by the normalizing instantiations of the language of power, education, and mass media.

The task of the poet is to make visible the still emerging, still in the shadows, unreflected changes in society; to give form of expression to new experience, providing opportunities for everyone to share this experience, and thus fighting for its material irreversibility.

The poet must move away from a set of random or non-binding practices towards consistent activity—toward a literary and social machine aimed at the production of un-alienated spaces of thought.

Practicing action, the poet thereby does not run from words—there is no need and nowhere to run—on the contrary, he as clearly as possible writes himself outside of words, more consciously forming his expression: the flesh of experience and its actual implementation.

Engaged poetry is not just retelling or illustration (“hammering readymade ideological nails”), nor is it journalism, a pamphlet, or a fight song with clever puns and pointed rhymes. Engagement is like the fight for one’s place of thought in the literary field, just as it is an opening up to society— engagement in praxis—the creation of conditions that make possible not only estranged aesthetic experience, but also the experience of ethical reading.



–translations by the Cement Collective


[1] “<...> Here we must go back to the distinction between the language-object and meta-language. If I am a woodcutter and I am led to name the tree that I am felling, whatever the form of my sentence, I ‘speak the tree,’ I do not speak about it. This means that my language is operational, transitively linked to its object; between the tree and myself, there is nothing but my labor, that is to say, an action. This is a political language: it represents nature for me only inasmuch as I am going to transform it; it is a language thanks to which I ‘act the object’; the tree is not an image for me, it is simply the meaning of my action.”  Bart R. Mythology. S. 272.

[2] “All the phenomena of the universe, whether made by human hand or the universal laws of nature, don’t give us ideas about the actual creation of matter, but only an idea of its metamorphoses. Connection and separation—those are the only elements that the human mind detects when analyzing the idea of the production....” (Quoted from “Medditazoni sulla Economia Politica,” Pietro Verri, which Marx cites in the first volume of “Capital,” proving the dual nature of labor.)

[3] “The path of political subjectification is a path not of imaginary identification, but of ‘literary’ rejection.” Jacques Rancière, “Sharing the sensual.”

[4] Bibikhin in “Word and Event” cites the book “Vita activa, or active life “ by Hannah Arendt: “Closely interrelated are action and speech; <...> The hero Achilles is equally great in word and deed; so he was brought up (Iliad IX 443). Unlike in modern thought, his words were considered great not because they expressed great thoughts. Quite the contrary. The hero must without fail be capable of noble words at a crucial time, just as of courageous actions. <...> The idea develops over time from such speech, not vice versa.”

[5] Cf. the introductory essay “The word-comrade as action.”

[6] In 1928, responding to a questionnaire, Mandelstam writes: “The October Revolution could not fail to affect my work, as it took from me my ‘biography,’ a sense of personal importance. I am grateful to it for the fact that it once and for all put an end to spiritual security and a livelihood based in cultural revenue. Like many others, I feel indebted to the revolution, but bring her gifts that she does not need.”

[7] “Literature can influence the world of morality and the behavior of people, giving them motives for action. Political writing makes every effort to encourage people to certain actions, giving them certain motives for action. In this sense, language is only a means to spread more or less suggestive motifs that guide those in whose souls they act. It is characteristic for this point of view that the relation of language to action, in which the first is not a means for the second, is not taken into account at all. A similar relationship exists as if for the weak in language and writing, brought down to a conventional means, just as for the miserable flawed act, whose source is not in itself, but in some motives that may be spoken or expressed. But, no matter in what manifold forms language might detect its impact, it will do so not through the transference of content, but the purest self-disclosure of its dignity and identity. My understanding of the subject and at the same time of politically important style and writing is this: to go towards what is denied to the word; only in the ineffable, absolute night where that sphere of muteness between word and incentive deed opens, can the magic spark run, and their unity lies, equally real.” In Benjamin, “Letter to Martin Buber [about the nature of language].” “The doctrine of the similarity. Media aesthetical research.” Publishing house of the Russian State Humanitarian University, Moscow 2012.

[8] We use here the direct speech of poet and activist Kirill Medvedev: “I think that art should: a) fascinate and shock, b) induce reflection and analysis. The first without the second results in pop or propaganda, the second without the first—in a speculative, unfeeling product. In art, the artist may be unselfconscious, revolting, or even reactionary—this is normal, because he directly, honestly, and spontaneously expresses his emotions. In politics, he tries to put this knowledge about himself and the world into action, so that it all eventually serves absolutely conscious goals: knowledge, enlightenment, and liberation.”

[9] “The politics of poetry, as well as of literature in general, is that way of being-together-with-other-people, who gradually form in the mind and existence of the poet, because, on the one hand, he somehow or other relates to politics as a collective practice, and on the other, determines his understanding of poetry in connection with the latter (even excluding such a connection, he will be forced to reckon with similar exceptions: the strangeness of his poetry to politics; he will have to follow the establishment, to justify it). “Jacques Rancière, Politique de la litterature (Galilee, 2007), cited in translation of S.L. Fokin.

[10] Althusser borrows from the “Acts” of St. Paul the assertion that, in “the Logos, we have being, movement and life,” substituting in the place of Logos, ideology:  “in ideology, we have being, movement and life.”

Expatriates ou Ex-Patriotes : le débat sur l'expatriation américaine durant la Guerre froide (années 1950-1960)

En 1958, le Time Magazine publie un article sur les Afro-Américains expatriés Paris : l'article cite – faussement – le plus éminent d’entre eux, l'écrivain Richard Wright.1 Celui-ci, dans une remarque lapidaire, dénonce le racisme américain, louant la France seule véritable terre de liberté. Renforçant l'image d'expatriés devenus « ex-patriotes », le propos jette le discrédit sur l'ensemble des exilés.  L'épisode instille entre eux la méfiance mettant la petite communauté à cran. Le procédé du journal (l'erreur de citation s'avèrera volontaire) est révélateur des tensions inhérentes à l'expatriation et de l'intérêt, en apparence positif, que la presse américaine porte au phénomène dans sa globalité.

Les recherches des historiens se sont toutefois largement portées sur le cas, particulier, des exilés, Afro-Américains ou, bien moins nombreux, professionnels du cinéma ayant fui volontairement leur pays. L'analyse des critiques de l'expatriation laisse ainsi souvent de côté les artistes, peintres ou sculpteurs, venus volontairement étudier et travailler à Paris, pour des motifs personnels et artistiques mais en aucun cas – ou très rarement – politiques. L'arrivée des artistes américains après guerre, alimentée par l'octroi d'un généreux GI Bill, est pourtant massive. Si leur nombre décline à partir du milieu des années 1950, il reste important jusqu'au milieu des années 1960, de nouveaux venus remplaçant ceux qui choisissent alors de rentrer au pays. Leur présence attire l'attention de la presse magazine mais aussi de Hollywood. Le succès de la comédie de Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris, sortie en 1951, témoigne largement de l'intérêt du public pour le sujet.

L'examen des portraits que font d'eux les médias américains confirme la persistance d'une image négative des « Américains à Paris » jusqu'au début des années 1960. Celle-ci touche tous ceux qui, artistes ou écrivains, se situent dans la lignée de la Génération Perdue des années 1920.2

C'est à cette critique et au débat qu'elle a engendré que nous nous intéresserons ici. Nourrie des stéréotypes hérités de l'entre-deux-guerres, la critique des peintres et sculpteurs expatriés révèle des tensions propres au champ artistique. Leur présence questionne en effet directement la nouvelle puissance artistique des États-Unis et la définition, sujette à débat, de l'art américain. Cette image s'améliore sensiblement entre les années 1950 et les années 1960, en partie rectifiée par le discours d'écrivains soutenant ces artistes : l'évolution révèle toutefois la prégnance des catégories nationales dans une période marquée par une forme de globalisation des relations culturelles.

Dénonciation et stéréotypes : la double critique de l'expatriation

La critique à l'encontre des artistes américains de Paris est double. La plus évidente prend la forme d'une attaque frontale. C'est celle du magazine conservateur Time qui s'en prend dès 1953 aux jeunes artistes américains encore attirés par l'idée d'une formation parisienne.3

Dans le contexte du Mc Carthysme et d'une crispation domestique sur les questions de patriotisme, la charge n'a rien d'étonnant. Elle fait également écho au raidissement des milieux artistiques à un moment où s'amorce la promotion d'un nouvel art américain à l'échelle internationale et la lutte de New York contre Paris.4

Le magazine s'adresse directement à un groupe de jeunes artistes américains vivant à Paris, en colère suite à l'annulation, pour manque de qualité, d'une présentation de leurs œuvres. La décision résulte de l'avis négatif émis par un jury composé de personnalités du monde de l'art français. Le titre de l'article, sous forme d'injonction, est clair : « Go West Young Men ». Il tire la conclusion logique des événements : les artistes américains n'étant pas les bienvenus à Paris, ils est temps pour eux de rentrer dans leur pays.

Le journaliste américain ne conteste pourtant pas les conclusions du jury parisien. Au contraire, il abonde dans leur sens : les œuvres de ces jeunes expatriés, majoritairement abstraites, sont, juge-t-il, conformistes, sans réelle originalité. « Ces Américains ess[aient] trop de peindre comme des Européens ».5 La critique est cinglante : elle vise d'abord Paris, dont le journaliste souligne l'incapacité à produire une nouvelle avant-garde internationale. Le manque de créativité des jeunes Américains est ainsi présenté comme la conséquence directe de leur exil dans une ville en déclin. Loin de leur pays, ces artistes ne peuvent créer un art digne de ce nom.

La critique de Paris et de la formation parisienne se fait ainsi au nom d'une défense de l'authenticité artistique, devenue gage d'originalité et de créativité, et définie en termes d'identité nationale. L'argument utilisé par le Time renvoie ainsi à une conception assez traditionnelle de l'art américain, dont l'ancrage local doit garantir l'émancipation à l'égard de l'Europe. On retrouve là des échos de la Hudson River School, prônant un art figuratif inspiré des paysages américains. On est loin de la défense de l'expressionnisme abstrait comme nouvelle avant-garde internationale.

« Européanisés », ces artistes sont des expatriés au sens premier du terme : ils risquent par leur séjour à l'étranger de perdre leur identité américaine.

Cette attaque, contre Paris et les expatriés, se précise en 1955 avec un article consacré à Lawrence Calcagno, jeune artiste prometteur, tout juste rentré aux États-Unis.6 Son retour, après cinq années en France, est présenté comme la preuve du déclin de la capitale française, peu à peu abandonnée par ses expatriés américains. Le temps semble révolu « où tout jeune peintre américain rêvait de faire le pèlerinage à Paris, où il pourrait élaborer son style sous l'influence des grands maîtres français. Aujourd'hui, un nombre croissant d'expatriés américains reviennent à la maison convaincus qu'il n'y a plus de peinture européenne contemporaine méritant d'être imitée ».7 Le coup de grâce est donné par la déclaration finale de ce fils prodigue :« Dans une centaine d'années, [Paris] ne sera qu'une ville musée, une ville morte, de plus. »8 L'affirmation, sans appel, contribue à condamner ceux qui ont choisi, à l'inverse, de rester en France ou en Europe.

Dernière étape de cette mise à mort de Paris par ses expatriés : en 1956, le Time Magazine consacre un troisième article au sujet. Il se félicite cette fois du succès obtenu à Paris par le peintre Sam Francis, « le peintre américain le plus célèbre de Paris […], ancien GI qui […] a ranimé jusqu'aux Parisiens blasés de peinture ».9 Que ce magazine anti-parisien puisse se réjouir du succès d'un Américain à Paris peut paraître étonnant. Mais il ne faut pas s'y tromper. Si la fierté de voir un compatriote triompher dans la vieille Europe l'emporte ici, tout est fait pour souligner le caractère américain du peintre – audacieux et énergique. Son succès devient le symbole du dynamisme de l'art américain. L' expatriation, ainsi rachetée, change de nature. Le peintre à Paris devient un ambassadeur de la culture américaine que son succès devrait ramener à son pays puisqu' « avec ses millions de francs, [il] envisage[rait] de financer l'achat d'un nouvel atelier et un voyage aux États-Unis ».10

La reconnaissance de Paris par le Time Magazine se fait ainsi au prix d'un véritable renversement des hiérarchies artistiques : ce sont maintenant les États-Unis qui inspirent l'Europe. Dans ce contexte, la présence d'artistes américains sur le territoire européen devient compréhensible. Elle n'est plus assimilée à une expatriation dans la mesure où elle apparaît comme temporaire et  s'accompagne d'une affirmation d'un caractère national.

La critique, forte, du Time Magazine, s'appuie sur un ensemble de préjugés négatifs à l'encontre des expatriés véhiculés par la culture populaire et les médias américains depuis les années folles. Les portraits de la communauté américaine de Paris réalisés après guerre par une presse plus progressiste ou par Hollywood, au ton souvent en apparence sympathique, frappent ainsi par leur ambivalence. Mêlant clichés de la bohème parisienne et de l'expatriation – un héritage de la Génération perdue de l'entre-deux-guerres – ils révèlent une méfiance latente sur laquelle jouera le Time Magazine au milieu des années 1950.

Le magazine Life est expert dans cette peinture douce amère de l'expatriation. Après un premier article sur le sujet en 1946, il publie, en 1949, un long photoreportage sur les étudiants bénéficiant du GI Bill à Paris.11 Le sous-titre de l'article annonce : « À Paris, les anciens GIs étudient tout, de la cuisine à l'écriture, et passent leurs nuits à débattre dans les cafés. »12 Une série de cinq vignettes les montre « au travail » : examinant un chapeau lors d'un cours de stylisme ou jouant les modèles chez un tailleur. Beaucoup peignent : dans une petite chambre sous les toits, dans une rue de Montmartre quand ce n'est allongé torse nu sur une péniche au soleil. Malgré un certain dénuement, leur vie paraît très agréable : ne nécessitant que peu d'effort, elle semble dépourvue de tout but réel. Les photographies révèlent l'environnement bohème dans lequel ils évoluent. La première photographie, reproduite en pleine page, montre cinq jeunes gens barbus, installés à la terrasse du Café de Flore (le nom apparaît bien visible sur le store) pour l'apéritif (un siphon est placé en évidence sur leur table). S'il reconnaît leur sérieux et les difficultés de leur vie quotidienne, le journaliste n'hésite pas à souligner le dilettantisme de certains, venus profiter de l'Europe à moindre frais. Il croque, de façon acerbe, le portrait de ces apprentis Hemingways qui cultivent un air d'intellectuel parisien mais dont les efforts se réduisent à imiter l'ancienne Génération perdue.

On est toutefois loin de l'attaque du Time Magazine : ces jeune gens sont simplement présentés comme des Américains à l'étranger – et non comme fuyant leur pays ou ayant perdu leur identité. Le récit oscille néanmoins entre une vision idéalisée d'une jeunesse libre et romantique et une image plus négative d'apprentis artistes insouciants et paresseux. La critique, sous-jacente, joue ainsi de l'attrait que conserve chez les lecteurs américains la ville de Paris, première destination d'un tourisme américain en plein essor.13 On la retrouvera dans les films d'Hollywood mettant en scène des Américains à Paris à commencer par la comédie musicale de Minelli de 1951. « Un Américain à Paris » fixe définitivement les traits de l'artiste expatrié à Paris : le héros, interprété par Gene Kelly, est un peintre lève-tard, peu convaincu de son propre talent, profitant des plaisirs de Paris.

Le débat transatlantique et la réhabilitation des expatriés

Ces attaques, directes ou à mi-mots de l'expatriation des jeunes artistes, suscitent dans les deux cas des réactions de l'autre côté de l'Atlantique – preuve s'il en était besoin du potentiel critique de la peinture en apparence amusée de Life. Ces réponses prennent des formes différentes. À la critique frontale répond une mobilisation des intéressés eux-mêmes qui défendent, contre le magazine et le jury français, la valeur de leur travail. L'article de Life, de façon peut-être plus intéressante, déplace le débat sur le terrain médiatique. La contestation vient d'un journal rival, le New York Herald Tribune : en prenant la défense des expatriés, celui entame un long travail, auquel d'autres participeront, de réécriture de l'expatriation, visant à casser l'image négative de celle-ci.

Le premier à répondre au Time est paradoxalement celui-là même que le magazine louera deux ans plus tard : dans une lettre datée de 1953, Lawrence Calcagno dénonce le traitement accordé par le magazine aux jeunes Américains de Paris. Chef de file de leur protestation, il lutte ainsi deux fronts, en France et aux Etats-Unis, pour que soit reconnue la qualité de leur œuvre.

Son action aboutit à Paris à l'organisation de l'exposition initialement refusée, sous l'égide d'un nouveau jury et avec le soutien du galeriste parisien John Craven, qui met gratuitement ses locaux à leur disposition.

La missive de Calcagno au Time (non publiée) vise à défendre l'honneur des jeunes artistes aux États-Unis.14 Elle s'apparente à un plaidoyer en faveur de l'expatriation. Le peintre souligne l'accueil favorable finalement réservée à l'exposition par les critiques français : il souligne que ceux-ci y ont vu « la démonstration d'une peinture cent pour cent américaine ».15 Loin d'avoir perdu tout contact avec leur pays, les « Américains de Paris » en deviennent ainsi les ambassadeurs.

Calcagno dénonce également l'impact délétère du climat américain sur le Time, prompt, d'après lui, à assimiler l'étranger – la France particulièrement – à l'anti-américanisme et au communisme. Il reproche au journaliste, dont il rappelle au passage qu'il est aussi un expatrié, de « prendre les graffiti communistes sur les murs de Paris plus au sérieux que ses compatriotes expatriés »16. Cette contre-attaque est particulièrement éclairante. Elle révèle comment, en ce début des années 1950, se rencontrent et s'associent une vision négative de l'expatriation héritée de l'entre-deux-guerres et les stéréotypes anti-communistes de Guerre froide. Le séjour en France n'est plus seulement dénoncé pour des raisons morales ou artistiques mais aussi pour des motifs idéologiques.

L'argumentation de Calcagno fait également écho aux questions qui agitent alors le milieu des jeunes artistes américains à Paris. Avec la fin du GI Bill, se pose en effet, parfois douloureusement, la question du retour, cristallisant les tensions liées à l'expatriation. La légitimité du choix de Paris semble de moins en moins évident, notamment quand ceux qui choisissent de rentrer, n'hésitent pas, à l'instar de Calcagno, à proclamer la mort de Paris. La question n'est pas seulement matérielle : une trop longue expatriation signifie aussi une forme d'« européanisation », un handicap sérieux pour ceux qui veulent faire carrière aux États-Unis, y compris pour ceux qui sont, à Paris, considérés comme des représentants de l'art américain. Dans un article de 1962, Priscilla Colt dénonce ainsi la situation paradoxale de Sam Francis, plus réputé en Europe que dans son propre pays. Elle y voit l'expression persistante de préjugés à l'encontre des artistes anciennement expatriés en Europe. Ce problème semble toucher particulièrement cette génération de peintres abstraits (l'expatriation à Paris n'empêchera pas en revanche dans les années 1960 un Leon Golub ou un Peter Saul de faire carrière dans leur pays). Il explique certaines tactiques, mises en œuvre par les artistes ou leurs soutiens américains, pour faire disparaître la référence à Paris de leur peinture et de leur biographie.17

Cette situation explique aussi la sensibilité des expatriés à toute critique venue des États-Unis. Calcagno lui même se voit en 1955 attaqué par un de ses anciens amis, choqué par l'article que lui a consacré le Time. Dans deux lettres adressées respectivement au magazine et à Calcagno,18 le peintre Joe Downing, ancien ami et cadet de Calcagno et expatrié de longue date, fait part du mécontentement des Américains de Paris. Il souligne le mal qu'a pu leur faire l'article du Time, en attisant à leur encontre l'anti-américanisme français. « Plusieurs journaux [français], explique-t-il, ont mentionné ce qu'ils considèrent comme ton ingratitude envers Paris et en ont profité pour mentionner qu'ils n'avaient aucunement besoin de nous, peintres américains […]. » Son argumentation, comme celle de Calcagno en 1953, se fonde davantage sur une réflexion sur l'exil que sur une défense de Paris. Downing prône un art délocalisé, purgé de tout nationalisme ; le véritable artiste peut, argumente-t-il, tout aussi bien travailler dans une ville que dans une autre, en exil ou dans son pays d'origine, puisqu'il cherche à exprimer une émotion individuelle et non une identité nationale. C'est bien sur cette conception de l'exil, et de ce que l'artiste doit à son environnement, que les deux artistes sont en désaccord. Dans la réponse qu'il lui fera, Lawrence Calcagno maintiendra lui que le climat américain est plus favorable à l'éclosion d'un art véritable, authentique et désintéressé. Il niera en revanche avoir déclaré la mort de Paris – une affirmation que lui aurait abusivement prêtée le journal.

La correspondance entre les deux hommes n'est qu'un épisode, privé, d'un long et vif débat transatlantique amorcé dès l'après-guerre. Celui-ci prend place dans la presse américaine distribuée et lue sur les deux continents. La réponse à l'article de Life est ainsi portée, presque logiquement, par le journal le plus lu des expatriés américains en Europe, le New York Herald Tribune. Celui-ci publie en 1950 son portrait des vétérans américains de Paris.19 Pastichant le magazine, le Herald Tribune annonce : « Les vétérans du GI Bill viennent dans la capitale française pour étudier tout ce qui est possible, de la civilisation gauloise à la cuisine. »20 Le journaliste s'empresse de souligner, à l'inverse de Life, le sérieux des étudiants, précisant qu'ils ont pour la plupart abandonné les cafés des Champs-Elysées ou de Saint-Germain, devenus trop chers. En référence directe à la photographie publiée en pleine page par Life, il ajoute : « Le Café Flore et les Deux Magots, les plus célébrés des cafés parisiens, sont singulièrement vides de barbus ces jours-ci et quand des Yankees hirsutes sont photographiés buvant du Pernod aux terrasses de la Rive Gauche, il est probable qu'ils aient été amenés des bistros des alentours. »21 Et de conclure, à l'attention directe de son confrère sommé de vérifier ses sources : « la vieille saga de la folle vie étudiante de Paris doit être revue et réactualisée ».22

Réponse d'un correspondant à un autre, l'article initie un combat contre les préjugés dont sont victimes les expatriés de l'après-guerre, et plus particulièrement les artistes.23

Deux écrivains s'illustreront, à la fin des années 1950 et au début des années 1960, dans cette défense des artistes américains de Paris : le romancier et scénariste James Jones, et le poète et critique d'art John Ashbery. La promotion qu'ils font de l'oeuvre de leurs compatriotes renvoie à la question centrale du débat sur l'expatriation : l' « américanité », revendiquée ou contestée, de ces artistes et de leurs œuvres.

Installé à Paris depuis 1958, l'auteur de Tant qu'il y aura des hommes est un des plus célèbres expatriés de l'après-guerre. Son appartement, sur l'Île Saint-Louis fait tous les dimanches office de salon, où se retrouvent Parisiens anglophones, Américains de passage et expatriés de longue date. Auteur à succès, connu pour sa participation à la Seconde Guerre mondiale et devenu une des références de la littérature américaine de l'après-guerre, il est sans doute moins suspect aux yeux du public américain que les artistes expatriés moins célèbres. Il est toutefois lui aussi soumis aux pressions inhérentes à l'expatriation : son américanité, dont son écriture réputée énergique voire brutale semble être un gage, peut sembler, avec le temps et l'exil, factice, surjouée, déconnectée de la réalité américaine. Il est presque trop américain pour être vrai pour Life qui publie son portrait en 1967.24

Peu versé dans la critique d'art, il accepte toutefois de rédiger de courts essais pour des amis résidant à Paris.25 Se refusant à toute analyse intellectuelle, Jones adopte une approche instinctive, spontanée, de leurs peintures. Il s'appuie également, pour les présenter aux lecteurs, sur sa connaissance intime des artistes, décelant dans leurs œuvres le souvenir de paysages d'enfance et d'une lumière qui lui rappelle celle de son Illinois natal. Le lien est ainsi fait entre ces œuvres, souvent abstraites et en apparence non assignables à un lieu défini, et l'origine américaine de leurs auteurs.

La position de John Ashbery est très différente. Venu en France au milieu des années 1950 grâce à une bourse Fulbright, il s'installe à Paris à l'automne 1958 et devient critique d'art pour le New York Herald Tribune. Proche des milieux beatniks et avant-gardistes de New York, il est beaucoup plus au fait que James Jones de l'actualité artistique et des enjeux que peut recouvrir l'expatriation. Sa défense de leur identité est moins sentimentale que celle de Jones : il cherche surtout, en s'appuyant sur ses connaissances, à démontrer que leurs œuvres s'inscrivent dans les courants récents de l'art américain, notamment de l'expressionnisme abstrait. Les textes qu'il rédige pour le peintre abstrait James Bishop véhiculent ainsi l'image d'un peintre demeuré, malgré l'exil, profondément américain, qui « suit l'évolution de la scène américaine avec la ferveur d'un exilé banni dans quelque colonie insalubre, quitte à s'en remettre largement aux revues d'art et aux récits des voyageurs rentrant au pays ».26 Le séjour à Paris, et plus généralement à l'étranger, se voit reconnu comme une véritable expérience artistique. Il devient retraite individuelle, nécessaire à l'artiste ainsi immergé dans son travail. En aucun cas il ne s'agit de s'intégrer à une scène étrangère.

John Ashbery rédige au moment de son départ un long article sur ces « réfugiés » comme il les appelle, dans lequel il réfute la notion même d'expatriation. L'article paraît en 1966 dans ArtNews.27 Selon Ashbery, les jeunes Américains à Paris et en Europe souhaitent « conserver intacte leur américanité, dans un environnement dans lequel ce sentiment pourra le mieux prendre racine et s'épanouir. » « [C]ette périlleuse expérience, ajoute-t-il […] peut aboutir à une forme d'art enthousiasmante, indépendante de son environnement ».28 L'argument est certainement plus facile à faire en ce milieu des années 1960, dans un climat de guerre froide apaisé, que dans les années 1950. La démocratisation de l'aviation civile et l'essor concomitant des offres touristiques pour découvrir l'Europe rendent alors la traversée beaucoup plus facile, dopant les aller-retour et les voyages de courte durée.

Cette démonstration artistique qui conteste le bien-fondé d'une expatriation synonyme de trahison de la patrie se décline sur le terrain politique avec la mobilisation des expatriés de toutes professions pour la reconnaissance de leurs droits de citoyens américains vivant à l'étranger : le combat pour le droit de vote à distance, pour la transmission de la nationalité américaine aux enfants, contre la taxation abusive, se fondent sur une remise en cause similaire du terme même d' « expatrié » et de l'image de ce dernier dorénavant promu « ambassadeur de bonne volonté ».29

Le volet artistique du débat sur l'expatriation qui se développe au cœur de la Guerre froide interroge la notion même d'un art américain à une époque où celui-ci s'affirme sur la scène internationale. La rivalité entre Paris et New York, tout autant sinon plus que l'importance relative de la communauté expatriée dans la capitale française, explique que le débat se focalise très largement sur l'expatriation parisienne. Lui sont attachés plus qu'à aucune autre un ensemble de stéréotypes dont la dimension symbolique et idéologique est accentuée par les tensions politiques de l'époque. Ce débat entre Américains des deux rives de l'Atlantique questionne le rapport des ces derniers à l'étranger à un moment où leur puissance, militaire, commerciale mais aussi culturelle et artistique, se déploie à l'échelle mondiale de manière inédite. La revendication des expatriés d'être reconnus comme représentants de leur pays – et non plus parias exilés, en est une traduction. Elle se mue en une volonté de prouver l'américanité de ceux qui vivent loin de la patrie. Les arguments des deux camps, partisans du séjour à l'étranger et contempteurs de l'expatriation, se heurtent à la question de l'identité et de l'appartenance nationale d'un artiste, montrant la difficulté à définir les limites d'un art purement américain. La réponse donnée par les deux, que ce soit l'idée d'un attachement à au territoire national ou la notion d'un tempérament américain qui demeure malgré la distance, apparaît comme singulièrement sentimentale, n'abordant qu'avec réticence la dimension proprement politique du problème.



  • 1. « Amid the Alien Corn », Time Magazine, 17 novembre 1958. Pour une analyse de cet article et des réactions de la communauté afro-américaine de Paris, voir Stovall, Tyler, « The fire this time : Black American expatriates and the Algerian war », Yale French Studies, n°98, 200, p. 182-200 et Fabre, Michel, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Urbana et Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 472
  • 2. Pour une analyse plus globale des critiques de l'expatriation américaine, voir Green, Nancy, « Expatriation, expatriates, and expats : the American transformation of a concept », The American historical review, vol. 114, n°2, avril 2009, p. 307-328. L'article qui couvre une large période, montre comment s'est formée au fil du temps une image négative de l'expatrié américain. Il analyse l'évolution positive du terme à partir des années 1960.
  • 3. « Go West, Young Men », Time Magazine, 4 mai 1953
  • 4. Sur la rivalité Paris New-York, voir notamment De Chassey, Éric, « Paris – New York : rivalités et dénégations », dans Paris: capitale des arts, 1900-1968, Hazan, 2002, p. 344-351 et Dossin, Catherine, The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s–1980s : A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds, 2015, Farnham surrey, Angleterre ; Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 312 p.
  • 5. « the Americans were trying too hard to paint like Europeans; most of them would have done better to stay home, concentrate on the local scene, and develop a style of their own. » Time Magazine, 4 mai 1953. Les traductions, sauf mention contraire, sont de l'auteur.
  • 6. « American from Paris », Time Magazine, 17 octobre 1955
  • 7. « Time was when every young American painter dreamed of making the pilgrimage to Paris, where he could shape his style under the influence of the great French masters. Today a growing number of US expatriates are coming home convinced that there is no longer much contemporary European paiting worth the compliment of imitation. » Ibid.
  • 8. « In another hundred years it will be just another dead museum city. » Ibid.
  • 9. « The hottest American painter in Paris these days is a 32-year-old Californian named Sam Francis, a husky ex-G.I., who in the past five years has caused even palette-jaded Parisians to perk up. » « New Talent », Time Magazine, 16 janvier 1956
  • 10. « With his million franc windfall, Francis plans to finance a new studio and a trip to the U. S. » Ibid. Installé à Paris en 1951, Sam Francis ne rentre définitivement aux États-Unis qu'en 1961.
  • 11. Stanton, John, « The New Expatriates », Life Magazine,12 septembre 1949. Le magazine a déjà consacré un article aux vétérans à Paris en 1946. « GIs in France », Life Magazine, 22 avril 1946.
  • 12. « In Paris, ex-GIs study everything from cooking to writing and argue all night in the cafes. » Ibid.
  • 13. Voir Endy, Christopher, Cold War holidays : American tourism in France, Chapel Hill (N.C.), University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 286 p.
  • 14. Lettre de Lawrence Calcagno au Time Magazine, mai 1953, Lawrence Calcagno Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Le projet d'exposition initial était soutenu par l'USIS et l'American Artists' and Students' Center.
  • 15. « the general consensus of opinion among Paris critics was that, here at last, is evidence of a 100 percent American painting […] . » Ibid.
  • 16. « your Paris correspondent takes communist wall-scribbling more seriously than his fellow expatriates here. » , Ibid. Calcagno fait ici allusion aux graffitis « US Go Home », qui dénoncent la présence des troupes américaines en France.
  • 17. Voir par exemple, au sujet de Kimber Smith et d'Ellsworth Kelly, De Chassey, Éric, « Pas de deux Amerikanische Künstler in Paris 1946-1965 » dans Schwarz, Dieter, Kimber Smith : Malerei 1956-1980, Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, 2004, p. 111-122
  • 18. Lettre de Joe Downing à Lawrence Calcagno, n. d., Lawrence Calcagno Papers, op. cit.
  • 19. Kilduff, Campbell, « Paris Schoolhouse for Americans », New York Herald Tribune, 17 février 1950
  • 20. « Veterans on the GI Bill come to French capital to study everything from Gallic civilization to cooking. » Ibid.
  • 21. « The Cafe Flore and the Deux Magots, most publicized of Paris cafes are singularly free of beards these days and when hirsute Yankees are pictured drinking pernods on crowded Left Bank terraces, they have probably been imported from outlying bistros. » Ibid.
  • 22. « At any rate, the old saga of gay, mad student days in Paris needs a little rewriting to bring it up to date. » Ibid.
  • 23. Pour un autre exemple, voir Gilbert, Edwin, « New Expatriates », New York Times, 14 décembre 1963. L'écrivain, longtemps expatrié en France et récemment rentré aux États-Unis, prend dans cet article la défense de sa communauté. Son texte révèle en creux la liste des stéréotypes, anciens et récents, dont sont victimes les expatriés associés dorénavant au mouvement beatnik.
  • 24. Moffett, Hugh, « Aging Heavy of the Paris Expatriates », Life Magazine, 4 août 1967
  • 25. Il consacre plusieurs textes à Allan Leepa, Alice Baber, Beauford Delaney et Paul Jenkins.
  • 26. Ashbery, John, ArtNews, décembre 1966. Nous reprenons la traduction de l'article parue dans Pacquement, Alfred et Schwarz, Dieter (dir.), James Bishop, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1994, p. 99-100
  • 27. Ashbery, John, « American Sanctuary in Paris », Artnews Annual, 1966, reproduit dans Ashbery, John, Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles. 1957-1987, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991, p. 85-97
  • 28. « This perhaps is the real reason why younger American painters take to Europe: a feeling of wanting to keep their American-ness whole, in the surroundings in which it is most likely to flourish and take root. The calm and the isolation of exile work together to accomplish this perilous experiment which, when it succeeds, can result in an exciting art that is independent of environment. » Ibid.
  • 29. Pour un témoignage sur le combat des expatriés, voir Michaux, Phyllis, The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship, Bayside (N.Y.), Aletheia Publications, 1996, 173 p.

Belatedness, Artlessness and American Culture in fin-de-siècle France

Research on American artists studying in France has tended to represent three modes of inquiry. Some scholars have recounted the details of art study in the École des Beaux-Arts and the private ateliers in the foreign capital, considering how the US artists drew from the stylistic and iconographic model of French artistic production.1 In this vein, the patronage of American art by the French government of objects that were produced and exhibited in Paris has been addressed.2 Second, research has attended to the US art practice based in the French countryside outside of Paris, where artists experimented with plein-air painting.3Third, tremendous research has explored the roles of three exceptional figures in American (and nineteenth-century) art history—Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler—in the foreign capital.4

But what is left out by these lines of inquiry? What happens if we look beyond questions of artistic influence in the city and the country and beyond the careers of the big three? If, in addition, we consider the influx of American artists studying and working in France as a cultural practice, with implications on the construction of national identities, what kind of picture emerges? The voices and artistic production of US artists who went to Paris for briefer periods of study, who intended to return to the United States, and who did not circulate as comfortably in international society are telling of larger narratives at work. Since Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler were multi-lingual and integrated into cosmopolitan art networks, they do not typify US art practice in France in the period. Yet their histories do at times reinforce larger trends in constructions of American identity in France. Furthermore, if we broaden the picture still further to take into account the thousands of US tourists who visited Paris, students of subjects other than art, and numerous writers, we can begin to address questions of the larger cultural discourse incited by this practice of travel.5

The archives of American artistic production, letters, journals, and their contemporary circles in France can be brought into dialogue with published primary sources in magazines, books, newspapers and periodicals and with secondary research on American culture in an international context to arrive at a more comprehensive and inclusive analysis of the stereotypes around American art practice in France during the period.6This mode of inquiry encourages a greater dialogue between artistic circles and the popular cultures with which they were intertwined, such as in the example of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which traveled to France in 1889 and 1905-06. Indeed, both American artists and Wild West performers made an impact on French perceptions about American culture. By drawing together from this range of sources, one can more fully understand the mechanisms of building cultural stereotypes.

Analyzing two image-text pairings discloses shifts in the cultural constructions of American identity during the second half of the nineteenth century. In Samuel Hollyer’s (1826-1919) frontispiece portrait of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), published in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (Fig. 1), the poet’s tilted hat and hand casually resting on his hips naturalize allusions to the rustic common American man.7 This image typified romantic constructions of the American individual at mid-century – confident and self-assured, but also unencumbered. Whitman’s poems represent the United States as a young nation with no history or tradition, a characterization echoed by his contemporaries. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) understood American identity as embedded in an appreciation for the landscape that resulted in Americans’ “perpetual youth.”8 In the post-Civil War period, these ideas continued, yet they seemed more tenuous.


Samuel Hollyer, 1855 engraving, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass
Fig. 1. Samuel Hollyer, Walt Whitman,1855, engraving, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass


In the period after the Civil War, US art study in Paris increased rapidly alongside tourism. Depictions of American shifted in this international context. In a cartoon from Mark Twain’s (1835-1910) satire on American travel, Innocents Abroad in 1869 (Fig. 2), the American, loosely based on the persona of Twain himself, is depicted as the opposite of Whitman.9The author played on the term “innocents” to refer to the gullibility of American tourists who make the “pilgrimage” to Europe.10 Twain’s tourists are not the intrepid and self-assured characters constructed by Whitman’s poetry, but rather are satirized as desperately seeking European culture, with their Grand Tour filling a gap in their cultural identity. Twain mocks his narrator in Paris whose breath is taken away most by the sight of an American flag hanging in front of a house.11 In the next episode, the narrator guilelessly shouts to his companion about the beauty of a woman standing nearby, assuming that she was French and could not understand him. When she turned to him and condemned his brashness in “good, pure English,” he “did not feel right comfortable for sometime afterward.”12 He mused, “Why will some people be so stupid as to suppose themselves the only foreigners among a crowd of ten thousand persons?”12 The illustration of this bumbling figure, produced by the illustration company Fay & Cox, is the antithesis of Whitman’s confident character. The main figure is displayed as uncouth with his arms and legs sprawled almost as though he is off-balance. His eyebrows are raised, enhancing his wide-eyed, open-mouthed facial expression.12 Even though he is dressed slightly less casually than Whitman, the narrator’s costume seems out of place surrounded by the more chic stovepipe hats abroad.13 The figure’s persona seems out of step with the social decorum of the international milieu. Twain’s character unwittingly highlighted the lack of confidence of the American character on the international stage.


Image from Innocents Abroad
Fig. 2. Fay & Cox, We Took a Walk, printed in Twain, Innocents Abroad, 135.


Indeed, what emerges when we look beyond the often self-assured cosmopolitan circulation of Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler is a larger identity construction that frequently performed cultural innocence.14 European observers often characterized Americans as lacking a history and exhibiting cultural youth. In spite of economic, political, and military ascendancy, the United States continued to be imagined as a “new nation”; it maintained the characterization even after the formation of other nations, Italy and Germany to name two examples.15 This expectation structured a sense of cultural belatedness as Americans mirrored expectations of American character for European audiences. American artists, writers, and travelers sought to turn the liability of lacking a culture and tradition into an asset of allowing for unencumbered experience and being unaffected by the weight of history.

In the context of the thousands of American art students who sought study in France between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I alongside many other American travelers abroad, constructions of American cultural belatedness became a dominant discourse through performances of innocence.16 Protean definitions of innocence developed as artistic and social strategies for American artists in Paris. In 1895, The Century Dictionary defined “innocence” in terms that were often employed to characterize Americans abroad and their artistic practice, both positively and negatively: “upright; untainted; artless; simple-minded; ignorant; naïve; childish; and guileless.”17 Innocence carried a wide range of meanings, and artists and writers experimented with its elasticity in the late nineteenth century. The related term “naïve” was defined similarly as “ingenuous; artless; simple; unsophisticated; unreflective; uncritical; and unconventional.”18 Dictionary definitions and usages suggest a closer relationship between the terms “innocence,” “guilelessness,” and “naïveté” in the late nineteenth century than today, especially with the overlapping term “artless.”

When enacted by Americans in France, this kind of character construction led Gilbert Parker (1860-1932), a Canadian critic for the London Independent, to suggest in 1891 that the best place to understand American culture was not in the United States, but, rather, in Paris. In his analysis of American artists in the French capital, Parker argued that being naïve was a uniquely American quality. In this, Parker saw a correspondence with a new international move to abandon tradition in favor of modernity: “What command better suited to the American temperament? If it has any quality which is conspicuously eminent, it is naïveté, it is a habit of looking at things as if they were seen for the first time.” Parker claimed that American culture was more innocent than others because the American “is bade to be independent and free from his youth up; he is impelled to think things out for himself; he is told, in effect, from his cradle to be naïve.”19 Parker’s comment highlighted the cultural association between innocence and Americans in 1890s Paris, but also the paradoxical nature of being “told…to be naïve.”

Indeed, participation in such a mythology of cultural belatedness by playing naïve marked a contradiction. To claim innocence—as an individual, as a culture, or as a nation—is paradoxical. The philosopher Immanuel Kant notes the potential tension within the concept of innocence, claiming, “an art of being naïf is a contradiction,” since the definition of naïve was artlessness. Any performed appearance of “uncorrupted, innocent nature” is immediately undermined by artifice. Kant maintains that there “is certainly the possibility of presenting naïveté in a fictitious character, and then it is a fine, though also rare, art.”20 Here, however, Kant makes clear that a posture of naïveté could not possibly be authentic.

With its manifold contradictions, what compelled Americans abroad to feed into a cultural innocence? The enactment of innocence appeared in ways that seemed incongruous with the increasingly complex layers of American history. Mark Twain pointed out the irony of American youth in 1883: “The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use the word ‘new’ in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it.”21 In 1893, Oscar Wilde similarly joked about the dichotomy of youth and age in the context of the United States: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.”22 These resounding, if mocking, international proclamations of American innocence in a period known for the nation’s political, economic, and cultural ascendency seem a contradiction.

My research suggests that after the Civil War, tropes of innocence were declared more vocally and in different ways than before it. As Henry James wrote, “the Civil War marks an era in the history of the American mind.” James concluded that the American “has eaten of the tree of knowledge,” intimating that the Civil War caused a paradigm shift in American culture and self-perception, triggering a fall from a position of innocence.23 James’s imaginary expulsion ignited a compulsive cultural need to “regain” a character that had in fact been troubled from the start. Postures of American innocence resounded even more loudly at the end of the century at precisely the moment when geopolitical events suggested innocence’s impossibility. In attempting to re-construct early nineteenth-century notions of their own culture, Americans parodied them. If Hollyer’s portrait of Whitman signified a romantic notion of American identity (Fig. 1), Fay & Cox’s image transformed it into a darker parody (Fig. 2). Knowing postures of innocence sought to remedy a culture shattered by war, divisive financial interests, and apprehensions about the place of the United States on the world stage. Many American writers, critics, and artists attempted to enact an impossible cultural return from these anxieties.

Discourses of American innocence in France were both defensive and offensive gestures of national insularity within an international setting. On the one hand, these performances seemed to protect American culture from Gallicization and the importation of European culture, as American art was increasingly judged to be too international for local tastes.24  As American critic Ellis T. Clarke complained in 1900, American art was “little more than French art with American trimmings.”25 On the other hand, these characterizations were interpreted as spreading American culture abroad through a form of cultural colonization. As Mrs. Tristam jokes to Christopher Newman in Henry James’s The American (1877), “You are the great Western Barbarian stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing awhile at this poor effete Old World, and then swooping down on it.”26 This discourse inverted traditional American-European relationships; as literary historian Jean Méral claimed, Newman signified “Christopher Columbus in reverse.”27 Many American travelers to France in this period perceived their characteristics of national newness as a way to rejuvenate and revise character they perceived as European decadence. In a humorous article from 1881, a Frenchman warned that the exportation of American culture marked “the new continent menacing us with their purely Yankee novelty.”28

Within Franco-American artistic exchange, characteristics of simplicity, newness, innocence, and an affiliation with nature oscillated between being treated as assets and as liabilities. In 1898, American painter Anna Klumpke (1856-1942) crowned her idol and partner French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) and photographed her (Fig. 3) to commemorate not only their relationship, but also to declare the maintained “symbolic alliance of old Europe with young America.”29 Printed in Klumpke’s 1908 biography of Bonheur, this image registered in multiple directions.30 Klumpke deferred to Bonheur as a paragon of academic practice. In following the elder French artist, who had been actively submitting paintings to the Paris Salon des Beaux-Arts since the 1840s, Klumpke exhibited in the Salon every year between 1882 and 1900.31 Meanwhile, the painting behind the elder artist, which seems to depict female riders in a rocky landscape, mirrored back French understandings of a youthful America. With her nod to the role that the American West played in her late career, Bonheur participated in this transnational construction of American innocence. These knowing postures capitalized on earlier mythologies of America as a young nation and on French narratives about American culture. This photograph suggests the context-specific nature of performances of innocence. As Bonheur and Klumpke declared their alliance, they capitalized on ideas of the elder Old World and the younger New World. They exoticized the American West while safely ensconced in the academic Parisian art world.

Fig. 3. Anna Klumpke, “La vieille Europe couronnée par le jeune Amérique (Old Europe Crowned by Young America),” 1898, photograph, printed in Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, son oeuvre, sa vie, 1908.

Discourses of cultural innocence allowed American artists and writers in late nineteenth-century France to construct their artistic projects as variously individual, modern, and national. Far from resisting them, American artists cultivated the tropes of national cultural insularity and provincialism that circulated internationally. Furthermore, the artists were savvy in this positioning, as they directly participated in and drew from international examples and discourses. In this way, a strategic idea of American cultural innocence contributed to a transnational art network. Research on this complex narrative of ambivalence, posture, parody, and paradox offers a new contribution to transnational art history, intellectual history, and to the study of late nineteenth century American art and culture in Paris.

The case studies I am researching mark points of rupture within several different performed aspects of American artistic innocence in Paris, in which the constructed nature of these tropes becomes apparent, and the mythologies of innocence are unraveled. These careful postures were at once unstable and irreconcilable, and represent conscious, controlled projections of innocence and forgetting. Each example taps into a distinct period-specific use of a concept of innocence and considers the mechanisms of its performance for its transnational audience in Paris. From austerity and Puritanism to the primitivism invited by performing to stereotypes of Native America, from playing the child to claiming the innocent eye, these case studies consider how art and social performance participated in a larger discourse that consistently declared and postured American cultural innocence, even as social realities challenged its very possibility.

Notions of cultural innocence and belatedness that appear in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Franco-American exchange have resonances into the twentieth century, and even into the contemporary moment. The fear of threats to a national innocence has, according to a Jungian psychologist, informed every major internal and external military engagement in which the United States has become entangled.32 Indeed, it is a mythology with tenacity. In 2009 in an “Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” US President Barack Obama stated, “As a country, we're not as young -- and perhaps not as innocent -- as we were when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt was President.” Here emerge the same mythologies of youth and innocence, as paradoxical in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt—or indeed, that of Theodore Roosevelt—as today. Yet the speech naturalizes that retrospective innocence, and it takes the work of cultural history to unpack the layers of mythology that were built mutually within the literary, visual, touristic, and popular cultures of travel.


Thanks to Natalia Cecire for her edits on this essay. 

  • 1. Kathleen Adler et al., Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, exh. cat. (London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2006); Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1990); H. Barbara Weinberg, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1991); H. Barbara Weinberg et al., Americans in Paris: The Academy, the Salon, the Studio, and the Artists’ Colony (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2003); and Véronique Wiesinger, Arthur Breton, Philippe Grunchec and Isabelle Gournay, Le Voyage de Paris: Les Américains dans les écoles d’art, 1868-1918 / Paris Bound: Americans in Art Schools, 1868-1918 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990).
  • 2. Susan Grant, “Whistler’s Mother Was Not Alone: French Government Acquisitions of American Paintings, 1871-1900,” Archives of American Art Journal 32, no. 2 (1992): 2–15; Véronique Wiesinger, “La politique d’acquisition de l’état français sous la troisième république en matiere d’art étranger contemporain: l’exemple américain (1870-1940),” Bulletin de La Société de l’histoire de l’art français (1993): 264–98.
  • 3. Important examples include Katherine Bourguignon et al., Impressionist Giverny : A Colony of Artists, 1885-1915, exh. cat. (Giverny: Musée d’art américain, 2007); William Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993); David Sellin, Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910, exh. cat. (Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum, 1982); and Katherine Bourguignon, ed., American Impressionism: A New Vision, 1880-1900, exh. cat. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014).
  • 4. The monographs on these three artists are too numerous to list in full. A few important sources include Judith A. Barter and Erica E. Hirshler, Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, exh. cat. (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1998); Marc Simpson, Richard Ormond, and H. Barbara Weinberg, Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Richard Dorment and Margaret MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1994).
  • 5. Nancy L. Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Whitney Walton, Internationalism, National Identities, and Study Abroad : France and the United States, 1890-1970 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011); and Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris : Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). See also William Stowe, Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Paul Fisher, Artful Itineraries: European Art and American Careers in High Culture, 1865-1920 (New York: Garland Publishers, 2000).
  • 6. Two helpful guides that list relevant archives for include Susan Grant, Paris: a Guide to Archival Sources for American Art History (Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997); and A Guide to Archival Sources for French-American Art History in the Archives of American Art (Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art, 1992). See also Brian N. Morton, Americans in Paris: An Anecdotal Street Guide (Ann Arbor, MI: Olivia & Hill Press, 1984).
  • 7. On this image, see Ruth Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850-1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 31-34; and Albert Boime, "Leaves of Grass and Real Allegory: A Case Study of International Rebellion," in Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts, ed. Geoffrey Sill and Roberta K. Tarbell (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 59.
  • 8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” (1836); repr., in George Stade, ed., Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 12.
  • 9. On the blurring between Twain and the main character in Innocents Abroad, see William Stowe, Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 148-149, 152, 156.
  • 10. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad: or, the New Pilgrim’s Progress: being some account of the steamship Quaker’s City’s pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land: with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents, and adventures as they appeared to the author (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1869). On Twain in Paris, see Patrice Higonnet, Paris: Capital of the World, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 329-331.
  • 11. Twain, Innocents Abroad, 134.
  • 12. a. b. c. Ibid.
  • 13. Thomas Eakins observed that hats distinguished Americans from other foreigners in a letter accompanied with a drawing of the various styles. See Eakins to Maggie Eakins, 12 April 1867, in William Ines Homer, ed., The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 101-102. See also Katharine De Forest, “American Women in Paris,” Harper’s Bazaar 33, no. 30 (July 28, 1900): 817.
  • 14. On cultural performance through discursively scripted behavior, see Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011), 11-13; 22-24; and Robin Bernstein, “Dances With Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 69-76. I am grateful to Sally Promey for suggesting Bernstein’s work.
  • 15. Malcolm Bradbury, Dangerous Pilgrimages: Trans-Atlantic Mythologies & the Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1995), 8.
  • 16. Emily C. Burns, “Innocence Abroad: The Construction and Marketing of an American Artistic Identity in Paris, 1880-1910” (PhD diss., Washington University in St. Louis, 2012).
  • 17. William Dwight Whitney, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: A Work of Universal Reference in all departments of knowledge, with a new atlas of the world (New York: The Century Company, 1899), vol. 4, 3106.
  • 18. Ibid., vol. 5, 3928-30.
  • 19. Gilbert Parker, “American Art Students in Paris,” Independent (London) 43, no. 2248 (Dec 31, 1891): 6. Emphasis in the original.
  • 20. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by Werner S. Pluhar (1790; repr., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 206.
  • 21. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1899), 4.
  • 22. Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893; repr., New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928), 19.
  • 23. Henry James, Hawthorne (1879; repr., New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1899), 139-140.
  • 24. On tension between perceived European and American approaches to life, see T. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 27.
  • 25. Ellis T. Clarke, “Alien Element in American Art,” Brush and Pencil 7, no. 1 (October 1900): 37.
  • 26. James, The American (1877), cited in Fiedler, “Americans Abroad,” 89. See also Cheryl B. Torsney, “Translation and Transubstantiation in The American,” Henry James Review 17, no. 1 (1996): 40-41; and John Carlos Rowe, “The Politics of Innocence in Henry James’s The American,” in New Essays on The American, ed. by Martha Banta, 69-97 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  • 27. Jean Méral, Paris in American Literature, trans. by Laurette Long (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 33; and Roxana Oltean, “‘I Longed for a New World’: Colonial Hysteria, The American, and Henry James’s Paris,” Henry James Review 24, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 270-271.
  • 28. “Le Nouveau-Continent nous menace d’une nouveauté purement yankee.” Perdican, “Courrier de Paris,” L’Illustration, June 18, 1881, 412.
  • 29. Anna Klumpke, Memoirs of an Artist, ed. by Lilian Whiting (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1940), 43; Britta C. Dwyer, “Bridging the Gap of Difference: Anna Klumpke’s ‘Union’ with Rosa Bonheur,” in Out of Context: American Artists Abroad, eds. by Laura Felleman Fattal and Carol Salus (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 69; and Dwyer, Anna Klumpke: A Turn-of-the-Century Painter and her World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999), 94-96.
  • 30. Anna Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre (Paris, 1908).
  • 31. Britta Dwyer, Anna Klumpke: A Turn-of-the-Century Painter and Her World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999).
  • 32. Barry Spector, Madness at the Gates of the City: the Myth of American Innocence (Berkeley: Regent Press, 2010).

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

Serious medical interest in scurvy coincided with what Burke named the unrolling of the map of mankind, the so-called discovery of the land and the peoples that had lain hidden from Europeans in the portion of the globe known as the Terra Incognita.  Journeys of that length did not come cheap.  The loss of health and lives—among sailors and indigenes alike—was immense, and scurvy was the chief threat at sea.  In the scientific voyages of the 1760s the `experimental gentleman’—naturalists, astronomers, and artists—were themselves, along with the crews, objects of a series of nutritional experiments designed to solve definitively the problem of scurvy.  A battery of supplements was supplied, none of which worked.  During Cook’s second voyage on the Resolution, J.R. Forster, his son George, William Wales the astronomer and Cook himself were all affected by low vitamin C; it was worse aboard his consort The Adventure.  The question I want to ask is this:  Why did the failure to discover a cure for scurvy on these and other ships involved in reconnoitering the unknown lands of the South Seas not seriously impede the work of territorial discovery? The answer most often given it alerted the discoverers to the need for fresh food, which certainly helped eliminate the levels of mortality suffered by Magellan and da Gama.  But another possibility I want to explore is that scurvy had something in common with experimental techniques insofar as one of its more remarkable symptoms was a morbid receptivity to sense impressions, similar to those that scientists of the Royal Society were trying to excite artificially.

Sudden sounds, such as the report of a musket or a cannon, were well known to kill scorbutic sailors.  Even pleasant stimuli such as a drink of fresh water, or a long-awaited taste of fruit, could provoke a seizure and put an end to their lives.  In his Omoo, Melville recalls how once `the Trades scarce filled our swooning sails; the air was languid with the aroma of a thousand strange, flowering shrubs.  Upon inhaling it, one of the sick who had recently shown symptoms of scurvy, cried out in pain, and was carried below.  This is no unusual effect in such cases’ (Melville 1847: 64).  When Bernardin de St Pierre landed on Mauritius badly afflicted he was disgusted by the trees, which smelt of excrement, and flowers such as the veloutier were alluring only at a distance, for the odour `quite close is perfectly loathesome’ (1800: 66).  Sometimes the sensation passed the frontier from pain to pleasure, or vice versa.  Here is Anders Sparrman, another scorbutic naturalist on the Resolution hunting ducks when at last he landed in New Zealand:  `The blood from these warm birds which were dying in my hands, running over my fingers, excited me to a degree I had never previously experienced. . . .This filled me with amazement, but the next moment I felt frightened’ (Sparrman in Smith 1956: 138).

The scorbutic eye was particularly engaged, so much so that objects of very incidental importance, such as the colour, shape and even consistency of clouds, could transfix the attention of even a committed utilitarian such as Dampier  (`The Sky was at this time covered with small hard Clouds . . . very thick one by another’ [Dampier 1939: 76]).  Spectacular novelties such as coral grew more wonderful for Matthew Flinders as scurvy heightened the impression, turning dangerous animate rock into fascinating antiscorbutics: `We had wheat sheaves, mushrooms, stags horns, cabbage leaves, and a variety of other forms, glowing under water with vivid tints of every shade betwixt green, purple, brown, and white’ (Flinders 1814: 2.88).  Pleasure and disgust could be aroused by the selfsame phenomenon:  Forster was fascinated by the effects of phosphorescence although he believed it was caused by rotting animalcules.  150 years later Stephenson was to have the same mixed reactions to coral. 

In the previous century scientists such as Robert Hooke had attempted to construct various prostheses for the sense-organs designed to make the work of discovery more exact:  telegraph wires to transport the voice to distant ears, hygroscopes for detecting effluvia leaking from the earth, and of course improved microscopes and telescopes designed to bring the infinitely small and the infinitely distant into distinct focus.  Hooke’s reactions to the colours and shapes of microscopic specimens were sometimes quite as ecstatic as Sparrman’s, Flinders’s and Thomas’s, but at the same time he was able to make accurate drawings of them that had never been seen before.  In this pursuit he explained how the senses were `wonderfully benefitted . . . and guided to an easie and more exact Performance of their Offices’ (Hooke 1665 [2003]: viii).  If other people were using ships, huge machines designed to bring the unknown into the purview of the five senses, Hooke was using his own portable contrivances to arrive at what he explicitly referred to as a discovery of `new Worlds and Terra-Incognita’s’ (xvi).  His machines were the forerunners of those that accompanied Cook’s supercargoes:  Kendal’s and Arnold’s chronometers, Knight’s azimuth compass, and Bird’s astronomical quadrant.

Support for Hooke was by no means unanimous.  Margaret Cavendish said his instruments could never penetrate the surface of things and find out the secrets of their constitution; they only disarranged the distances, textures and angles that made them usual or comely, revealing instead the immodesties, moles and hairs that cause the maids of honour in Brobdingnag to appear so repulsive to Gulliver.   Were we to see things a thousand times more clearly, or hear things magnified at the same rate, our lives would be made intolerable, Locke argued:  there would be no rest, no power of discrimination.  Such a witness would live `in a quite different World from other People.  Nothing would appear the same to him, and others’ (Locke 1979: 303; [II; xxiii; 12]). For Hooke temporary alienation from the familiar world was the whole point.  If a Terra Incognita was to be disclosed, then one had to act in the spirit of foreignness:  `An Observer should endeavor to look upon such Experiments and Observations that are more common, and to which he has been more accustom’d, as if they were the greatest Rarity, and to imagine himself a Person of some other Country or Calling, that he never heard of, or seen the like before’ (Hooke 1969: 61-2).   Scurvy, you might say, helped the observer into this estranged position.

By opting for the advantages of grossly normal sense impressions, Locke and Cavendish were defending not just the proportionality and communicability of sensations, but also a very specific notion of how they are received and exchanged as ideas.  Along with Descartes and Hobbes, Locke agreed that the sensory organ, while being stimulated by an object in the real world, did not take a print of it or in any way incorporate its properties.  He said, `There is nothing like our Ideas in the Bodies themselves’ (Locke 1979: 137 [II; vii; 14-15]).  The smell of a flower is an event in the sensorium, created purely by the pulsations passing between the olfactory nerve and the brain.  Cavendish did not go as far as that, but she resisted the Epicurean doctrine of films and effigies as a streams of matter launched from the surface of the object at the eye, ear, or nose.  Using the analogy of the mirror she said, `It is not the real body of the object which the glass presents, but the glass only figures or patterns out the picture presented in and by the glass’ (Cavendish 2001: 51). With this account of representation she denied Lucretius, the arch-empiricist, the indisputable evidence of impressions or any collaboration between them in the production of knowledge, for he had argued that no organ can thwart the receptivity of another.  He asked, `Can th’eare, the sight denie?/ Shall th’eare, or tast, the feeling sense oppose?/ Or shall the eie, dispute against the nose?’ (Hutchinson 2012: 1.251; 4.508-10).  Cavendish retorted,  `The nose knows not what the eyes see’ (Cavendish 2001: 46).  For his part, Hooke was convinced of the contrary, for it was only with the help of a microscope that the true roughness of a surface could be felt, a coalition of the prosthetized eye and the imaginary finger:  `The roughness and smoothness of a Body is made much more sensible by the help of a Microscope, than by the most tender and delicate Hand’ (Hooke 1667: xii).   Walter Charleton, the greatest authority on scurvy and nutrition in the 17th century, noticed that under the pressure of great stimuli the eye will engross the functions of other senses, resulting in the kind of imminent synaesthesia experienced by Dampier when he found clouds hard, and which Addison vouched for in his essays of the pleasures of imagination:

"when he observed that an appetent eye experiences sight as a `more delicate and diffusive Kind of Touch’ (Charleton 1670: 29; Spectator No. 11).   Coleridge was fascinated by this phenomenon.  He called it the double touch (`touch . . . co-present with vision, yet not coalescing’) and wondered `whether the Skin be not a Terra Incognita in Medicine’" (Notebooks II, 3217, f 70; I, 1826.16.209).

From the beginning of this debate, the issue of enlarged sensations had calqued upon questions of disease.  If you could smell too much like Bernardin de St Pierre and Melville’s sailor, or have your eyes dazzle with the colours of serpents, like the Ancient Mariner, then life was not only lived in a foreign place, that place was a hospital.  Supposing that it might be possible to sense too much, and out of that superfluity for one organ to seize on the function of another, Francis Hutcheson had concluded such a condition to be inconsistent with providential mercy (`Senses incapable of bearing the surrounding Objects without Pain; Eyes pained with the Light; a Palate offended with the Fruits of the Earth; a Skin as tender as the Coats of the Eye’ [Hutcheson 2002: 119]).  But of course what he had done was to reject as improbable the very scenes of scorbutic distress widely reported in contemporary journals.  In his Essay on Man Pope similarly excludes a list of morbid susceptibilities as exorbitant to the divine plan, concluding with the figment of a man so tender he shrieks at the smell of a flower, as Melville’s sailor was actually heard to do:

Say what the use, were finer optics given,

T’inspect a mite, not comprehend the heaven?

Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er,

To smart and agonise at every pore?

Or quick effluvia darting through the brain,

Die of a rose in aromatic pain?

Approaching the matter of acute sensation from a different angle, Boyle saw a very useful connexion between disease and extraordinary powers of perception.  In his essays on effluvia he mentions several examples, some of an innate susceptibility (the lady who swoons at the smell of roses) and some of a valuable acquisition of sensibility made after an illness.  A man who recovered from bubonic plague found himself able to smell an infected person before any signs of the pestilence had appeared; another who suffered inflammation of eyes and afterwards could distinguish colours in the dark; a physician who fell sick of a fever and discovered he could now overhear whispered speech at a great distance (Boyle 1999: 7. 268, 282).  Boyle’s explanation for these accidental improvements of the subtlety of the senses stems from his belief that effluvia do not bounce off the body, but pierce it and, by affecting its sensory equipment, cause an alteration in the organs of the body that influences subsequent reactions to their environment (7.267).  So from a blind and involuntary susceptibility, the body’s organs may advance to an alertness that is active and what Bacon would call ejaculative or emittent.  From this superlative awareness of effluvia, Boyle supposes such a degree of potential discrimination that the size, shape, motion and colour of effluvia themselves might become perceptible.  So by means of the variations in the internal constitution of the living engine (as Boyle calls the body) he aims at the discovery of an invisible world of particles, just as Hooke with his machines goes in search of a terra incognita in the bottom of a microscope, or Coleridge beneath the porous surface of the skin.

Is scurvy such a disease, capable of prostrating the body and then redeeming it with enhanced perceptions?  Walter Charleton and Thomas Willis, Boyle’s contemporaries and authors of books on scurvy, offered some account of how this might happen.  For both men the healthy state of the sensitive soul resembled Boyle’s idea of the action and reaction of effluvia.  Willis called it dilation or irradiation, Charleton named it corroboration.  It occurs when something powerfully imagined actually takes place:  `We imagine the Drinking of excellent Wine, with a certain Pleasure, then we indulge it; the Imagination of its Pleasure is again sharpened by the taste, and then by a reflected Appetite drinking is repeated.  So as it were in a Circle, the Throat or Appetite provokes the Sensation, and the Sensation causes the Appetite to be sharpened, and iterated' (Willis 1683: 49). 

This corroboration of an image by the addition of a sensation is to be compared with the fixations of the scorbutic imagination observed by Thomas Trotter:  `The cravings of appetite, not only amuse their waking hours with thoughts on green fields, and streams of pure water; but in their dreams they are tantalized by the favourite idea; and on waking the mortifying disappointment is expressed with the utmost regret, with groans, and weeping, altogether childish’ (Trotter 1792: 44).  But then when the desideratum is materialized, what a remarkable shift from miserable privation to intense pleasure!  `The patient in the inveterate stage of the disease seems to gather strength even from the sight of fruit:  the spirits are exhilarated by the taste itself, and the juice is swallowed, with emotions of the most voluptuous luxury’ (ibid. 141-2).   John Mitchel, an Irish political prisoner en route for Tasmania aboard a scorbutic transport, wished never to forget the `brutal rapture’ with which he devoured six oranges when the ship landed in Pernambuco.  There is a gentler example of corroboration when the parched Ancient Mariner wakes from a dream of drinking to find his thirst quenched by the rain falling on his bare skin:  `Sure I had drunken in my dreams,/ And still my body drank.’

If we bear this in mind when reviewing one of the great junctions in the history of scurvy and science, Humphrey Davy’s tests on nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institute in 1799, an unmistakable resemblance seems to take place between the excitements of a scorbutic seaman and the sensations induced by laughing gas in Davy’s fingers, eyes and ears.  He made and inhaled the gas in order to test a theory that `azote oxyd,’ as it was called, acted as the source of all contagious diseases including scurvy.  While finding that he did not succumb to scurvy or any other malady, Davy did find himself changed in ways a scorbutic sailor or a Royal Scientist might recognize:  `I imagined that I had increased sensibility of touch:  my fingers were pained by anything rough . . . I was certainly more irritable, and felt more acutely from trifling circumstances . . . My visible impressions were dazzling and apparently magnified . . . when I have breathed it amidst noise, the sense of hearing has been painfully affected even by moderate intensity of sound’ (Davy 1800: 464, 487, 491).  At the limit of sensory irritation Davy had discovered that there was no difference between suffering the impression of an object and imagining it.  Like Condillac's statue, he could not tell the difference between passivity and activity, `between a cause within, and a cause without' (Condillac 1930: 8).  At this pitch both were the same, and the consequence was remarkable, explained by Mike Jay as follows:  `[Davy’s] culminating experiment had proved, as nothing ever had before, that an altered sensory and mental frame had the power to generate an entirely different universe’ (Jay: 2010: 199).  Was this universe Boyle’s invisible world, or Hooke’s terra incognita, or the corroborative assignation with fresh fruit on a desert island? Probably not, for it was experienced, as Coleridge himself was aware from his experiments with opium and laughing  gas, with all sense of `outness’ lost:  and then, as he says,  `What a horrid disease very moment would become’ (Notebooks 1307.8.56).  Scurvy was a terrible affliction but was not that kind of disease.  It maintained some link with the real, for no matter how foreign and extravagant it might appear in a dream, it was an authentic message from the body to the imagination to which the imagination did its best to respond.  Erasmus Darwin called reveries and delusions resulting in total disobedience to external stimuli `diseases of volition,’ and we can conclude that scurvy was not of that genus because its morbid sensory alertness preserved (no matter obliquely) some kind of faith with the empiricist principles that shadowed its history.


Logging-In: The Ship's Log as Medium

The material cultures of seafaring I discuss in this brief paper are those artifacts of onboard ship writing, the log books and journals that eighteenth-century mariners kept. These logs and journals mediated, we might say, two distinct sets of relationships. First and foremost, they oriented sailors to their location, functioning as a medium for tracking a ship’s movement through oceanic space. Yet second, of course, they became the record that mediated the relationship between those aboard ships and those on land, a means for those on shore to apprehend the situation and sometimes selves of their far-flung compatriots, a way of bringing sailors and their distant experiences at sea home, as it were. I mean this language of mediating distances between sailors and those distant from them to echo, slightly, the language of moral sense and sympathy (recall Adam Smith’s claim—that we are affected by another’s agonies when they are “brought home to ourselves”).[1]

For these artifacts and their own movement and mediation offer suggestive occasions for sympathy—in the repetitive meteorological phrases that travel from the journals and logs into other forms of writing, in odd moments of personalization, and, in the journals of the well-known sailor-poet William Falconer and the less known Richard Blechynden, in original poems or quotations of sentiment.

The origin of the logbook, and of its basis as a tool of navigation, mediating sailors’ knowledge of their movement through space, lies in that most material of artifacts, a wooden log. In his 1574 A Regiment for Sea, William Bourne describes how, with a line tied to it, a log was thrown over the side of the ship, and the length of line was measured “while someone turned a minute sand glass” or in some cases “spoke some number of woordes [sic]” in order to measure the ship’s speed.[2] (The length was eventually counted by literal knots tied in the line at regular intervals; thus, our equally iconic term “knots.”) Recordings of the log-derived information, eventually replaced by the “chip log,” a weighted wooden quadrant, were entered into what would come to be called the “log board.”

 Sailors used the log board for identifying their location—first and foremost to themselves—within the vast expanse of the sea. It was the means by which they navigated via dead reckoning, “the judgment or estimation which is made of the place where a ship is situated”, it is “discovered,” as William Falconer notes in his popular and authoritative An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, “by keeping an account of the distance she [the ship] has run by the log, and of her course steered by the compass.”[3] Crucially, the log helped sailors rectify their sense of the ship’s location based on these data, in part, by their also recording there “drift and leeway,” the movement of the ship off course due to wind and weather. It is for this reason that log-boards (and log-books, as I shall discuss in a moment) record not only the log-derived speed, and the compass-given direction, but also wind directions, in a separate column, and constantly note, in the “remarkable occurrences” column, wind and weather conditions, such as “fresh gale,” “steddy [sic] gale,” “decaying” winds. (Image 1). Within the log-board and log-books sailors use the wind direction and estimated strength to correct their estimation of the ship’s course and location, on log-book noting, for instance, that the ship has probably undergone ”6 points drift to Leeward,” for instance (Image 2).     

Image 1. 


Image 2. 


Even at this level of documenting for the purposes of navigation, another form of mediation was taking place. As Falconer notes in his Universal Dictionary of the Marine, the initial recording of the log-derived speed was entered into a “log-board, a sort of table, divided into several columns, containing the hours of the day and night, the direction of the winds, the course of the ship and all the material occurrences that happen . . . from noon to noon, together with latitude.”[4] This information was copied into the log-book, but at that point it also furnished the material for “the different officers of the ship . . . to compile their journals, where they insert whatever may have been omitted; or reject what may appear superfluous.” In these journals, sailors made their own estimates of the impact of wind levels and weather on the course and consequent location of the ship. Their interpretation of the influence of the wind and weather on the ship’s course could thus vary widely, as could their resulting sense of the position of the ship recorded in their journal. As N.A.M. Rogers notes, “A passenger in a Dutch merchantman sailing form Cadiz to Ostend in 1743 was alarmed to discover after a fortnight at sea that the two mates differed 150 miles in their latitude, one placing the ship north of the Scilly Isles, the other south.”[5] So, one log-book informs a range of journals in a movement between a singular, collective navigational set of data, and multiple individual interpretations of that data and separate accounts, adding, subtracting, and even inserting the self, at times, into their respective journals, as I shall explore in more detail in a moment. A series of mediations, from instrument-derived information to log-board, log-book, and individual journals, takes place, yet little mediation occurs between those individual journals, each writer compiling his own in isolation from other crew members.

Log-books and journals are tools for the sailors themselves to comprehend—or more accurately, estimate—their place in space in the present, via a series of past recordings set in relation to that present, in surprizing isolation, however, from other journal writers aboard the ship. But they are also, in part, directed toward others—future, distant others—a reader, say at the admirality in Greenwich, who might read these texts upon the ship’s return or captains consulting the journals for navigation information after they have been deposited in the Public Records Office. N.A.M. Rogers cites one such consulting figure, who writes, “ ‘we frequently when we are going voyages where we have never been get journals out of the public offices for our guide and direction.’ ”[6] We see a keen, if uncomfortable, awareness of that potential future reader in one journal in which untoward material is covered up—a “remarkable occurrence” that notes “came on board an Indian we made beastly drunk” (Image 3). Pasted over this entry is a piece of paper with a demure drawing of the coastline, returning the journal to the mediation of space for which it might be consulted (Image 4). This literal cover-up anticipates (and mediates) the journal’s movement—to other hands, other readers, in the future.

Image 3.

Image 4.


Log-books and journals moved outward, to other readers, in less literal and physical, ways too. They help structure the form and content of the accounts of voyages that appeared in increasing numbers in eighteenth-century Britain. Significantly, the very language of log-books and journals, particularly the vocabulary of wind direction, wind force, and weather conditions, moves to the print voyages, part of the representational economy of the prosaic and material that mediates the experience of distant sailors for general readers. Not surprisingly, voyage narratives, such as those of William Dampier, are filled with such language, as in “The 21st day we went from thence with a moderate gale of wind SW. In the afternoon we had excessive showers.”[7] Including technicalities of wind direction and force helped provide a sense of a transparent record of an empirically observed and measured, if quite distant, world—a formal mechanism that might turn readers into “virtual witnesses” of a sort.[8]  Dampier himself is not following the Royal Society’s “Directions for Seamen, bound for far Voyages” and their request that seamen “keep a register of all changes of the wind and weather at all hours . . . the point the wind blows from and whether strong or weak; the rains, hail, snow . . . and above all to carefully observe the trade-winds.”[9] And yet his and other published voyage accounts repeat the recordings of wind and weather, the information that comprises so much of the log and journal, bestowing authenticity and valued information on their accounts.

Less predictably, the log and journal language of wind and weather also move to prose fiction representations of the sea. Robinson Crusoe’s initial observation upon going on board a ship for the very first time is “the Wind began to blow and the Winds to rise.”[10] And Defoe’s Captain Singleton stocks his narrative with descriptions such as “After sailing on NW and N with a fresh gale at SE . . . we were surprized with very bad weather, and especially violent rains.”[11] Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random tells us how “the storm subsided into a brisk gale” and later “we beat up to windward with fine easy weather.”[12]  These “log-language” moments no longer serve the purpose of orientation in space. Here the information, decoupled from such navigational purposes, becomes a reality effect that helps render the distant proximal, mediating life at sea for remote readers.

Recordings of wind and weather in particular to conjure life on board a ship increasingly registered meaning even beyond mere reality effect, the mediation of distance promised in such recordings moving from figural to literal connection between the remote figure at sea and the reader. William Falconer’s immensely popular poem The Shipwreck translates the language of weather into a Georgic poetics, as in lines such as “More southward still the increasing breezes veer./And, o’er the horizon, lybic clouds appear” (ll. 326-7).[13] Yet his drawing from wind and weather recordings reflects not an effort to seem to represent transparently distant experience at sea but rather to promote new conceptions of weather’s role in mediation and communication between sailors and readers, especially on an affective dimension. Critics have begun to explore representations of weather itself as a mediating force. With these new conceptualizations, as Mary Favret writes, “Intimations of change over time and at a distance could be transmitted, felt, through the weather.”[14] Favret goes so far as to argue that “Human beings suffered, and suffered in sympathy, the pain of an inexorable, even mechanistic weather on a global scale.”[15] Thus, the sailor speaker of Falconer’s poem articulates his suffering with the weather: “Ye tempests ov’r my head congeniall roll/To suit the mournful music of my soul” (ll. 9-10) and hopes to make this a sort of “suffering in sympathy,” his aim, as he puts it, “To wake to sympathy the feeling heart” I. l. 650).[16] Here, the weather is the mediating point between sailor and English reader, in what might seem a surprizing reworking of the language of the log and journal, in their dutiful recording of wind and weather, into a touching language of affect.

While Favret argues that it was only in the later eighteenth century that weather came to be seen “as a global system of exchange, something that passed from one region to another over local and national borders,” mariners had long understood weather in these terms, the quality of wind indicating the remote direction from which it came, helping early sailors orient themselves in space, for instance, or known trade winds moving between and moving ships from one locale to a distant one.[17] In his sailor’s awareness of movement of weather, Falconer’s sailor invites: imagine the northern wind or tempest to imagine the state of my mind, suggesting that weather moves figuratively and, as part of a global system, literally to readers.

This mediation takes its most legible form as an appeal to sentiment in a poetic work like Falconer’s The Shipwreck, but such attempts are not limited to poetry, for we find evidence of the sentimental individual on the pages of journals themselves. As Jonathan Lamb succinctly and insightfully puts it, “the histories of sympathy and navigation are closely entwined.”[18] Attending to the material cultures of log-books and journals suggest that it might not only be, as Lamb argues, representations of mariners in peril (as in Falconer’s Shipwreck) or beached mariners, whose “encounters with native peoples” provided them “their own opportunity to join in sympathetic exchanges” that offer occasions of thinking about this relationship between sympathy and navigation.[19] The journals of ship-bound sailors too, a medium seemingly drained of sentiment, with its columns, numbers, and technical weather terms, might also tell us something about that entwinement.

This might take the form of an element as simple, but individualizing, as a flourish of handwriting, as in this letter, found in an otherwise unremarkable log-book of 1686 (Image 5). Or a detailed graphic, as in Falconer’s lovely, idiosyncratic moons indicating new moon in his journal (Image 6). Or it might take the form of Falconer’s personally embellished journal “title page,” oddly oscillating between attempted replication of the official public presentation of print and the personal embellishment of handmade letters and script (Image 7). Mid-shipman Richard Blechynden’s 1780-1781 journal, dutiful in its recording of course, wind, latitude, longitude (Image 8), also includes drawings of lighthouses (Image 9) and of sympathy-inducing images of ships in distress (image 10). Such images individualize and sentimentalize the page of a book that also records and adjusts the log-book, orienting the ship and sailor in space while also making the sailor a sentimental subject. The recently sold journal of George Hodge, an enlisted sailor in the British Navy from 1790 to 1833 (Image 11) positions Hodge in similar terms, here with a self-portrait and the sentimental appeal “And now before I do put up my pen/I’ll show the different ships and then/Commit both me and it into that hand/That pulls the strong down and makes the weak ones stand.” [20]

Image 5.

Image 6.

Image 7.

Image 8.

Image 9.

Image 10.

Image 11.

The language of sentiment and sympathy is not merely a rhetoric I am imposing on these artifacts, but is explicitly recorded within their pages—another page from Blechynden’s journal (Image 12) cites the poetry of Shenstone, “Whoe’er has travelled life’s dull round,/Where’er his stages may have been,/May sigh to think he still has found/The warmest welcome at an inn,” and Pope’s “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”, assembling motifs of outsiderness and privation.[21] A cut out of a print memorial to the Duke of Gloucester. The journals fall into the hands of collectors, who view them as sentimental objects, sometimes adding their own material.

Image 12.

We see the dynamics of navigation and sympathy in full force in the 1760 journal of Falconer’s Atlantic voyages. While it is not surprising to find moments of sentiment in the journal of this poet, as the other journals suggest, the moments of sentiment are not aberrations. Falconer’s journal offers both the uniform representation of log information (Image 13), including the quotidian recordings of distance travelled, latitude, longitude, speed (knots) course, winds, and, most often, weather conditions. Yet its opening pages, suggestively, feature drafts of a poem regarding “smooth zephyrs,” deploying that sympathetic economy of weather, as well as a drafts of a letter to a patron, trying on different terms in a calculation of those most likely to induce a sympathetic response. Falconer’s journal devotes page after page to revisions of his sentimental poems, mainly to absent lovers. His language is that sentimental lexicon of throbbing and burning bodies. “My soul all melting . . . enflamed my bosom glows,” he writes in one draft.[22] In some of the writing the sailor’s body in particular becomes a legible—and audible—sign of sentiment; He is weeping man, and “His looks confess’d a votary of the main/And conscious grief awak’d the mournful strain.” In another poem, the poet speaker’s “mournful strain” finds a match and sanctuary in the wind; Stanza IV reads: “with you, he sung, ye winds and seas/Th’afflicted soul may find/Some transient interval of Ease/Deserted by mankind” (Image 14).[23] In another stanza, the wind conveys the poets strains across great distances—Stanza I reads: Ye winds that o’er the vassal Main/Eternal Empire keep/In trembling murmurs breathe my strain/Along the azure deep” (Image 15).[24]

Image 13.

Image 14.

Image 15.

Finally, the sentimentalization of the writing subject and that writing’s projected movement across great distance sit oddly (if also predictably, for those familiar with eighteenth-century conceptualizations of sympathy) beside the log recordings of the world immediately surrounding that subject. The recordings remain bereft of sentiment and sympathy, even when they mention the sad fate of those onboard ship with them. Logs will record the purchase of “negroes,” slaves, alongside the repairing of the ship, or they will note a sailor’s death and move to wind conditions without missing a beat. Blechynden’s journal entry for May 1804 reads “fell overboard and was drowned Bevis, not a material loss to the service—hazy weather” (471).[25] Fellow feeling for those close is nowhere to be found; it is someone or some place at a distance with whom the journal writer seeks or imagines sympathy, mediated through wind and weather, remote and yet feeling. And here we find, perhaps an odd parallel to our own sense of logging on (first recorded in 1963) in the individual oblivious to those physically near, imagining connection, instead with remote others, via technology. Attention to the material cultures of the eighteenth-century log-book and journal reveal that media of navigation, through which to imagine distant, and not proximal, relations, might not be as remote as we would like to think.



[1] D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, ed., The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979), 9.

[2] Taylor, Haven Finding Art, 201 and Bourne, A Regiment for the Sea (London, 1574) cited in Taylor, Haven-Finding Art, 201, respectively.

[3] Falconer, A Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, 1769).

[4] Falconer, A Universal Dictionary of the Marine.

[5] The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 47.

[6] The Wooden World, 52.

[7] A Collection of Voyage in Four Volumes Containing I Captain William Dampier’s 4 Vols., v. I (London, 1729), 4.

[8] For a description of the virtual witness in scientific discourse see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985).

[9] Philosophical Transactions, January 1665.

[10] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ed. Michael Shinagel (New York: Norton, 1994), 7.

[11] Defoe, Captain Singleton, ed. Shiv Kumar (Oxford: Oxford Worlds Classics, 1990), 33.

[12] Smollett, Roderick Random ed. Paul Gabriel Bouce (Oxford: Oxford Worlds Classics, 1981), 165 and 419, respectively. Roderick also describes the weather, “a deluge of rain falls” just after describing the dead soldiers, thrown over the ship, and now littering the harbor in Carthagena (189).

[13] William Jones, ed., A Critical Edition of the Poetical Works of William Falconer (Edwin Mellen, 2003), 170.

[14] War at a Distance (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), 134.

[15] War at a Distance, 138.

[16] A Critical Edition of the Poems of William Falconer, 163 and 279, respectively.

[17] War at a Distance, 131.

[18] Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840 (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2001), 250.

[19] Preserving the Self, 251.

[21] Richard Blechynden Journal 1780-1781, British Library Add MS 45578.

[22] William Falconer Journal 1760, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich BRK/13.

[23] William Falconer Journal 1760, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich BRK/13.

[24] William Falconer Journal 1760, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich BRK/13.

[25] Blechynden Journal, 1804, British Library Add MS 45581.

​Probability and Literary Being

Why write a dialogue? Our aim was to take seriously Arcade’s new colloquy format, which opens the door to a spontaneous exchange of ideas that are not yet exhaustively filtered, moderated, or rhetorically depersonalized. The ideas that follow grew out of conversations between the two of us, and although they might someday find their way into a journal article or a book chapter, it seemed worthwhile to acknowledge them for what they are now: speculative and provisional, germinal, we hope, in both senses of that word. We hope it will read as a wager on the truly collaborative future of our discipline—collaboration measured not simply by coauthorship, but by a willingness to expose one’s hypotheses to engagement and critique at all stages of their life cycle.

J.D. Porter: There’s a moment in Toni Morrison’s Jazz where the narrator seems to break the fourth wall to explain that the plot didn’t turn out as she expected, because the characters “contradicted me at every turn”; they were “busy being original, complicated, changeable—human, I guess you’d say ” (220).[1] In other words, the characters took control of the narrative, took some of its possibilities out of her hands; she was going to end the story some other way, but they wouldn’t let her. I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, what does that mean exactly? Is she suggesting that her characters have agency? And the more I thought about it, and recalled other authors saying similar things (the characters “took on a life of their own” or “got away from me”, etc.), the more I began to wonder if the easy answer is the correct one: The characters seem to be real, and have agency, because they are, and they do.

Hannah Walser: Cognitive literary studies has an explanation for this phenomenon ready to hand. Blakey Vermeule, for instance, claims that “the illusion of [characters’] independent agency” experienced by novelists has been speculatively linked both to “imaginary play in childhood … and to mind-reading capacities in general” (46-7). The idea is that our brains are evolutionarily primed to attribute mental states and intentions not only to humans themselves, but to humanlike entitiesanthropomorphic cartoons, expressive robots, and yes, literary characters. When authors feel their characters directing them or resisting them or talking back, they’re experiencing a side effect of this overattribution of minds, just as readers are when they feel as though characters are real humans with lives outside the boundaries of the story.

JDP: The cognitive piece is crucial here, but I think this actually extends to an ontological question as well. We think of characters and fictional worlds as wholly manipulable just because they were invented; they are mere arrangements of technical features that the author could adjust in any way at all. But the suggestion that Morrison and others have made is that, once some of those technical features are in place, the author loses a little control. The characters attain some sort of actual ontological status related to the epistemological issues you raise. I think the explanation here has to do with probability, specifically Bayesian reasoning and its deployment of priors.

HW: Agreedour judgment of others’ agency is as much a matter of probabilistic reasoning as it is of imaginative projection. When it comes to contemporary research on how we learn to understand other minds, Hume, not Kant, is the patron saintsometimes even explicitly credited as such, by the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik for instance (Gopnik 76). “Causal learning,” Gopnik notes, “is a notorious example of the gap between experience and truth” (75), most of all in the case of mental causesdesires, intentions, beliefs, and so onwhich are by definition invisible and perhaps little more than hypothetical. But Gopnik’s idea, borne out by research into the learning processes of infants and small children, is that human reasoning about causality can be modeled according to Bayes’s concept of probability, which takes into account both the conditional probability of an eventfor instance, the probability that it’s raining outside, given that I’m taking my umbrella to workand the prior probability of the two events: that it’s raining, and that I would take my umbrella to work on any given day regardless of weather. (Wikipedia has a good breakdown of Bayesian basics.)

I’m going to explain this in detail, because Gopnik’s adaptation of Bayesian probability to social cognition strikes me as a persuasive theory of how we come to see other humans as intending agents with personalities: we notice that variations in behavior are often predictable on the basis of hypothesized individual preferences and beliefs rather than inherent features of the world. Take the setup of one of Gopnik’s experiments: a baby is confronted with an adult confederate who seems to find broccoli delicious and Goldfish crackers disgusting; then, with two bowls in front of the babyone filled with broccoli, the other with crackersthe adult ambiguously asks the child to “give me some” (Gopnik 55-6). In essence, this experiment asks the infant to make a prediction: which food will make the confederate happy? Fourteen-month-old babies, regardless of the adult’s preferences, give her a handful of crackers: they love crackers; the prior probability of crackers leading to happiness, in a baby’s world, is extremely high. But by eighteen months, babies have begun to construct what Gopnik calls a “causal map” (39) of human minds; they’ve begun to understand visible reactionssmiling and saying “yum,” or putting out one’s tongue and saying “yuck”as effects of invisible causal entities called mental states. So when the confederate asks for a snack, the eighteen-month-old will hand her, however incredulously, some broccoli; given this individual’s previous happy response to broccoli, the baby calculates that more broccoli will produce the same result. (Why are babies so obliging, so eager to make others happy? That’s a question for a different dialogue.)

So far, so good; bravo baby. But complications can arise when these epistemological assessments ossify into ontological assumptions. Another study by one of Gopnik’s colleagues, Elizabeth Seiver, found that American 4-year-olds were sensitive to statistical differences that implied person-based or situation-based explanations; in other words, they varied their causal explanations depending on whether they were looking at a person’s consistent behavior in multiple situations (implying that some trait specific to the person makes him act this way) or a situation that elicited consistent behavior from multiple different persons (implying that a feature of the situation itself is responsible). Surprisingly, though, American 6-year-olds were actually less accurate at this task: they tended to explain all behavior in terms of personal traits (Seiver et al. 450). Why would two extra years of learning and being in the world decrease the children’s empirical accuracy? Seiver et al., drawing on cross-cultural research in developmental psychology, suggest that children’s causal explanations draw not only upon “covariation information” (i.e., statistical patterns) but also on “adult trait language,” the terms that other members of their culture use to explain behavior (451-2). Although Seiver and colleagues don’t mention it, literature is surely one of the main vehicles for communicating these terms: when Western children read stories about children who behave in particular ways because they are brave or kind or clever, they’re internalizing a trait-based explanatory systemwhereas they would infer a quite different causal system from stories where children do things because those things are easy or safe or because their parents want them to.

JDP: This has fascinating implications when it comes to novelistic ontologies, because it seems to me that a well-developed character actually attains agency. I don’t mean this in a rhetorical or metaphoric sense: I mean real agency. And to clarify an important term, by well-developed, I mean realistic, which, as you say, means variations of behavior that fall within some band of predictability. In some of your other work you mention a sort of sweet-spot between total randomness and total predictability: a random-letter generator and a machine that prints “dog” over and over don’t seem agential; a machine that answers questions with unique sentences, even if they are not particularly coherent, seems kind of agential. To all that I’d add that a realistic character should be further constrained by the kinds of behaviors that make one person seem unique relative to all others. As a simple example, if you’ve been writing a sweet old lady villager character for 300 pages, she can’t suddenly become a harsh space ship captain, no matter what your plot machinations are. The old lady controls the possibilities by virtue of being a plausible old lady; you write her past, but that makes her into some sort of entity that determines her future. This is why we’re calling this Bayesian: The author sets priors, but these priors then affect the probabilities of future events. Once you make her a sweet old lady villager, the sweet-old-lady-villagerness becomes a real, existing factor that has to be contended with. The epistemological unrecognition that would be caused by deviation from those priors stems to some extent from the ontological status of her field of probable/plausible actions.

HW: If you, as a reader, encountered that story where a sweet old lady turned into a brusque spaceship captain, the deviation from your prior probabilitiesthat is, the “causal maps” and assessments of likelihood you’ve developed through interacting with humans in the worldwould be so great that you’d probably reject the story outright, or at least shift the grounds of your interpretation. (You might, for instance, start thinking about the text less as a mimetic representation of characters’ personalities and motivations and more as a complex game of authorial intention.) It’s perhaps for this reason that we don’t see too many novelists who completely dispense with their culture’s ideas of characterological consistency.

But now imagine a different narrative in which the sweet old lady became an accessory to murder. Still quite surprising, but now perhaps assimilable enough that you would actually use this information to revise your priors. In this case, for instance, if the old lady was placed in circumstances where inaction led to murder, you might shift your baseline causal map just a little more toward situation-based (rather than trait-based) explanations. A different story, if it showed you a man whose disposition completely changed after he sustained a traumatic brain injury, might lead you to increase the role of physiological factors in your behavioral predictions. Such narratives won’t necessarily lead to a more accurate understanding of human behavior, but the key is that they’re doing more than simply reinforcing cultural and cognitive defaults; rather, they function as evidence, less potent than real-world experience but still influential, that our brains can use to rewrite their probability assessments. This is another form of textual agency: the probability-worlds we encounter in fiction have the potential to change our priors in the real world.

JDP: This concept of priors is such a great way to think about the ontological layering at play in literature. A text is an event (not just an object), comprising a blend of things the author makes up, things from the real world, things the reader interprets, and, we’re saying here, things that the text winds up imposing of its own…well, something like volition. So we can think about the text becoming a plausible story (maybe even recognizable as a story) only by virtue of correspondence with real-world priors. If you imagine a narrative that totally departed from those, who knows what you’d have—some Beckettian slog. It’s fun to imagine what that would even look like—wildly inconsistent characters in rapidly changing settings, plots that ignore their own history, unexplained departures from the laws of physics…very interesting, but not much of a narrative. So the real world matters in making the story. But over the course of the narrative, the text acquires its own set of priors, as an inevitable side effect of this first process; the ones it borrows turn into its own. And so it’s worth emphasizing that this blended ontology of the text is also a blended ontology of the real world—after all, both things are being blended here. And, as you say, the text can even, in practical terms, push back, either on Toni Morrison or on a reader’s priors.

HW: These distinct (but interwoven) ontologies are, I’d argue, inextricable frommaybe even identical to?distinct epistemologies. Let’s say that the term “agent” labels a particular region on the probability band, a particular regime of prediction that’s based on inferred intentions and mental states. Then concepts like “object” and “machine” and so on can be imagined as occupying neighboring regions and entailing different probability assessments. In other words, the ontological categories of “agent,” “object,” and so on both derive from and imply differing probability patterns in perceptual data. If this is the case, then agency should be understood as a kind of continually revised assessment of the likelihood that any given behavioral event is causally linked to the unique individual in question.

Why is this important? Well, most extant cognitive theories of literature place all of the power and agency in the reading encounter on the side of the brain; the brain sets the terms of the reader’s encounter with the text, which in turn can only represent phenomena that fit with the brain’s own categories and heuristics. Our purpose here is, if not exactly to flip that agency, at least to redistribute it: the text is a relatively autonomous system of probability, not identical to the probability-system of the world although related to it, and the brain makes inferences and predictions on the basis of data from both these systems. In other words, the text creates the conditions within which the brain constructs its ad-hoc ontologies.

JDP: There’s an obvious objection here that I want to address: Couldn’t we change the characters? Maybe they or their texts have certain probability restrictions that make some changes less likely than others, but at any time the author could make the old lady a space captain; for that matter, the reader can imagine her as a space captain at any time. It feels as though just this possibility is an important departure from extra-novelistic ontologies; we can’t just make actual old ladies into grizzled space captains whenever we want. The option does not meaningfully exist, even for our most powerful regulatory agencies. I have two responses to this:

1. Well, maybe we could do this, but we don’t. Empirically, this just isn’t how stories work. When something like this does happen, it’s strange enough to stand out as a signature feature of the work, evidence of postmodernism perhaps—but not just another tool in the standard narratological arsenal. If it’s important that we could defy probabilistic narration, it’s also important that we almost never do.

2. We can adjust actual ontology. It happens all the time. See, for example, the temperature of the earth, social fictions like race and gender, the question “Is there a city called Carthage”, etc. This is a signature issue in, for example, ecocriticism: Passenger pigeons once had undeniable ontological presence; they could literally blot out the sun. Now they do not exist; we, people, did that. In the 1940’s we even started getting rid of atoms by turning matter into energy. I don’t want to say that novelistic ontology is the same as real-world ontology; but its amenability to adjustment is not evidence against its ontological weight.

HW: Maybe we can explain the difference between real-world and fictional ontologies in terms of their resistance to exactly that kind of adjustment: literary beings put up less resistance than nonliterary ones, but they still put up some. I’d go even further, in fact: maybe the difference between the ontologies of agency that I was discussing aboveconscious entities vs. nonconscious but animate entities vs. machines, etc.can also be understood in terms of the degree and quality of resistance to imaginative and material intervention that they mount. I can’t talk an apple off a tree, although I can talk a person into helping me; I can’t (unless I’m empowered by the state or backed by violenceagain, seeds I’d like to plant for future conversations) make a person do what I want by changing the condition of his body, but I can make a machine do what I want by changing its physical construction. Humans move through the world with interests and desires, after all, and our predictions and probabilistic assessments of future events are in practical terms assessments of how likely we are to be able to manipulate or change those events. Perhaps the sense of fictional characters’ agency shared by both writers and readers results partly from the complexity of these textual “machines” and the difficulty of rewiring them.

JDP: The world is a little less different from a text than we often think, especially when you look at it through this lens of resistance, where ontological status is not a binary but an amount. This is another useful concept to borrow from Bayes: That the answer to a question is very often not “yes” or “no”, but “some”. Will Jeb Bush win the primary is best answered with a percentage: He has, say, a 45% chance. Similarly, is this poem a sonnet? might best be answered “This poem is 80% a sonnet”; Is this person an agent? by “She is 60% an agent”. In this view, texts and characters and fictions are a little more real; apples and machines and people a little more fictional.

Works Cited

Gopnik, Alison. The Philosophical Baby. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

—————. Jazz.  New York: Vintage International, 1992.   

Seiver, Elizabeth, Alison Gopnik, and Noah D. Goodman. “Did She Jump Because She Was the Big Sister or Because the Trampoline Was Safe? Causal Inference and the Development of Social Attribution.” Child Development 84.2 (2013). 443-454.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

[1] This moment is actually a little ambiguous; the speaker might be a character of some sort. Still, it certainly suggests my reading as well, especially since this kind of thing is a common move in Morrison’s work—elsewhere in Jazz, but also in Home, for instance, when the protagonist tells the narrator she got the story wrong: “Earlier you wrote about how sure I was that the beat-up man on the train to Chicago would turn around when they got home and whip the wife who tried to help him. Not true. I didn’t think any such thing” (69).