“Paris is a very old story,” Henry James wrote in 1878–so old, in fact, that it’s hard to write about it without falling into clichés about chestnut trees, couture, freedom and l’amour. But making the subject of writers in Paris–in particular, American writers–a fresh literary experience rather than an old chestnut is exactly what the various authors in the Library of America’s marvelous new anthology manage to do.
Called–you’ve got it–Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, and edited by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, whose sojourn there was amiably recounted in Paris to the Moon, the Library of America’s wide-ranging collection also lives up to the word Phillip Lopate (anthologist par excellence) gave it in advance praise: tasty. Seventy pilgrims hold out to the reader a portion of their dream of a different world, tidbits of delight and wisdom that extend from Benjamin Franklin’s acute observation, “Travelling is one Way of lengthening Life, at least in Appearance,” to Dorothea Tanning’s comment, circa 200 years later, that one can’t walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse without running into some former denizen eager to gab about Hemingway or Man Ray’s Kiki, “sociable spooks full of droll stories but spooks all the same.”
Yes, there is something spooky about the subject of Americans in Paris, since it’s inevitably connected not just to a certain predictability but to a kind of longing. “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” quipped Oliver Wendell Holmes with reason. (Bad Americans go to America, Oscar Wilde replied.) We depend on our relationship to Paris, however vexed, for some definition of ourselves, even when we define ourselves in angry opposition. (Witness the recent furor over “freedom fries.”) “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” as Henry James knew, “and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.” Gertrude Stein, of course, was more comfortable with the way Americans often think of themselves as citizens of somewhere else. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”
Paris, then, represents something just out of reach to Americans self-conscious about their rough-and-ready country, long on ingenuity and short on style. (In the Luxembourg Gardens, William Faulkner stands amazed. When the band plays Massenet or Berlioz, children hush and taxi drivers stop their cars.) Paris is a way of life, a sensibility, a force and a pleasure not found at home. “This book is a history of the worlds Americans have made in the city where they have gone to be happy,” Gopnik writes in his preface. “It is in part, therefore, the history of an illusion.” But expatriates (and even tourists) are a lonely lot, relishing their loneliness even while they protest against it, as Hemingway does hauntingly in his memoir A Moveable Feast. Strolling along the Seine, with “the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars,” he recalls, “I could never be lonely along the river.” But he is.