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America. Much has been written about Hemingway’s France and the American expatriates who were lured to Paris in the 1920s. Having lived through the experience of World War I in the U.S., which effectively reshaped the very idea of what America stood for and valued, young artists, writers, poets and thinkers of the time found themselves suddenly standing in a different world. America, for them, had been radically changed as a result of the war, and the effect of that change (social, political and moral) meant that their artistic voice and vision, which often ran counter to principles/ideas achieved through warfare, were severely compromised.
American writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein stated it best: “It is not what France gave you but what it did not take from you that was important.”
“The lost generation” (unegénération perdue, a term attributed to Stein’s French mechanic) as these American expatriates are referred to, were as drawn to France as much as they felt alienated at home. Born in Camden, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson, who William Faulkner called “the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on,” had been a hard-working copywriter at a Chicago advertising agency when one day, at the age of thirty-six, he said goodbye to his secretary, walked out of his office and left this note for his wife: “There is a bridge over a river with cross-ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair.” As James Tuttleton of The New Criterion points out, “Though always complaining, [Anderson] worked in advertising for a decade after crossing that bridge over the river,” but clearly he was living in two different worlds: one world of reality and the pressures that come with the materialism and artificiality tied to what is perceived as a responsible adult life, and the other world of imagination, an agent of renewal that American poet Wallace Stevens called “the only genius.” For many young American poets, writers, artist and thinkers, France offered the promise of that renewal, that genius.
Ernest Hemingway called it “magic.” In a piece for The Toronto Daily Star dated April 14, 1923, he writes: “There is magic in the name France. It is magic like the smell of the sea or the sight of blue hills or of soldiers marching by. It is very old magic.”
Like Sherwood Anderson, the major American literary and artistic figures in France during this time represent a snapshot of the United States, all of them transitioning into a world nothing like what they had known at home. Gertrude Stein was perhaps the single most influential American of this group in Paris; she was born in Allegheny, PA, moved to Oakland, CA, and settled in Baltimore before moving to France and spending the majority of her life there. F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, MN.
Photographer Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids and raised in New York. T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis. Hemingway was born in Oak Park, IL. And it was poet Ezra Pound, born in Hailey, Idaho, who would pen the simple slogan of this generation’s creative transition: “Make It New.”
All of them seeking the magic of France, through new literary and artistic forms, new voices, new perspectives.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it will stay with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” What Hemingway feasted on was the whole of France—the people, architecture, wine, food, art, culture and sport— and the feeling that Paris gave him: that of a civilized society, governed more by the taste, refinement and restraint than the dictates of governmental rule or political power.
While Hemingway’s own alcoholism was obviously not about refinement or restraint, he nevertheless wrote: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” What was important in his life and work was the recognition of the civil thing—the sensory thing—and to align one’s life with that. This could happen for Hemingway at a café (the subtle manner of the waiter, the simplicity of the food, the way a cocktail is made, the energy of the patrons), attending the horse races at Auteuil or taking in, at times, the six-day races at the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
For him, these experiences were perhaps the antidote for the loneliness and nothingness (nada) he writes of in the short story “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” No doubt, Hemingway himself identified with his own character’s words: “It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y pues nada y pues nada.”
Although cycling is not as well documented in his work as other sports, Hemingway did have an appreciation for the relationship between France and the bicycle: “I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write.” Perhaps it was this unique and impenetrable connection between cycling and France (manifested in language and culture) that made it so difficult for Hemingway to write about the sport.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tells of his own relationship to cycling, both as a writer and spectator: “I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and the roads. But I will get the Vélodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the high-banked wooden track and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine.”
Again, what Hemingway points his readers to are the sensory details within the experience, noticing the effort and tactics and sound of the race. He writes of the “terribly dangerous and beautiful races of one hundred kilometers on the big banked wooden five-hundred-meter bowl of the Stade Buffalo,” or when “we saw that great rider fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack a hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic” in order to breathe life into the scene. It is there, noticing the underlying current of things and feeling the experience of what happens, that Hemingway brings the totality of the moment to life.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the emotions of France: this was Hemingway’s Paris. It was his magic—and a very old magic, indeed.