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Geniuses Together

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although American fascination with Paris extends back as far as the American Revolution, the 1920’s formed the most memorable period, for that decade left a cosmopolitan imprint on American letters. The Left Bank had previously acquired a romantic aura from Henri Murger’s SCENES DE LA VIE DE BOHEME and from the nineteenth century aesthetes and intellectuals who settled there. Avant-garde writers, painters, sculptors, and composers found its ambience suitable. Drawn by wanderlust, by intellectual and aesthetic freedom, by the desire to escape Prohibition, and by a favorable exchange rate, American intellectuals emigrated to Paris in large numbers.

Among the early arrivals were Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas, in whose apartment artists regularly assembled. Sylvia Beach, also an early arrival, established another gathering place for writers, a bookstore whimsically named Shakespeare and Company, specializing in American literature. As the first publisher of James Joyce’s ULYSSES, she attained special stature among American exiles, who admired her defense of the most prominent exponent of modernism.

The list of Americans who migrated to the Quarter includes, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kay Boyle, Malcolm Cowley, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Henry Miller. Hemingway receives extensive attention because his career as a serious artist began there. For characters in his novel THE SUN ALSO RISES, he drew upon his friends and companions living on the Left Bank.

As Humphrey Carpenter observes, the question remains whether the Lost Generation, as Gertrude Stein named them, owed their success to the Paris experience. The geniuses who gathered in the Left Bank did not always nurture one another or even like one another. And for every Hemingway, there was at least one Robert McAlmon, who despite early promise ended his life selling trusses in Arizona.