American Writers in Paris Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

American Writers in Paris

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, American writers, musicians, and artists have chosen to reside in Paris, France, for a variety of economic and artistic reasons. Beginning with Gertrude Stein in the first decade of the century and reaching its apex during the era between the two World Wars, American writers expatriated to Paris seeking to take advantage of the city's inexpensive cost of living, as well as European openness to less socially restrictive lifestyles and more experimental literature.

Active duty in World War I introduced Paris to many American writers, musicians, and artists, including Ernest Hemingway and e. e. cummings, who returned to France after the war. The following two decades found such writers as Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Miller living in Paris. Artists, musicians, and writers from other countries also helped make Paris a cultural Mecca. Such writers as Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, H. D., D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce; visual artists Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Luis Bueñuel; and music composers George Antheil and Virgil Thompson relocated to Paris during this period, influencing and helping to advance such literary movements as modernism, Vorticism, surrealism, and Dadaism. Writings from this period were printed in the many periodicals and published by the many book companies that flourished. The relatively inexpensive cost of printing in France resulted in the inception and success of such influential magazines as The Little Review, transition, Broom, and Secession, and such book publishers as Contact, Black Sun, Plain Editions, and Three Mountains.

The receptive environment of Paris prompted many women and African-Americans to relocate there, with many finding avenues for their talents and lifestyles that America at that time would not permit. Women began successful publishing operations such as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company, an enterprise begun as a sideline to Beach's bookstore located on the Left Bank of Paris's Seine River. Shakespeare and Company changed literary history by publishing the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Woman writers included Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Anaïs Nin, and Kay Boyle. Some of these women found that they were able to explore aspects of their sexuality—including lesbianism and bisexuality—in Paris, which American propriety of the 1920s and 1930s would not sanction. African Americans traveled to France to enjoy the freedoms that black soldiers experienced in Paris during World War I. Such writers included Jean Toomer and Claude McKay. Other African American writers who later moved to Paris included Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

Many of the American writers residing in Paris returned to the United States during the 1930s. The advent of World War II temporarily ended the migration of American writers to Paris. When the war ended, Wright and Baldwin relocated there, as well as novelists Peter Mathiesson and James Jones. The legacy of American writers living in Paris, however, follows no distinct literary pattern. Most of the writers concerned themselves with American themes and settings in their work written in Paris while adhering to no common style or outlook. But the work of this period is noted for its more graphic depiction of violence, sexuality, and profane language, which resulted in much of this work being banned in the United States for many years.