What is it about Paris? For more than two centuries, the city has shimmered like Babylon in the American psyche. Two million Americans come here every year, to ride the bateaux mouches and commune with the ancient stones. Then there is the wining and dining, the Louvre and the Lido, Chanel and the Coupole. But wouldn't life be sweeter in the Yucatan?
The answer, according to an excellent new book, Harvey Levenstein's "Seductive Journey: American tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age," is "no." For more than 200 years, Americans have been in love with Paris, though the terms of the affair have evolved with history and social class, not to mention the rise of mass tourism. The quest for cultural self-improvement, the aim of the "Grand Tour," has slowly given way to the desire to "have a break and a good time." The hordes have arrived, and culture is losing ground to leisure.
"I have always loved visiting France," the author, a Canadian, explains from his home in Hamilton, Ontario, where he teaches American history at McMaster's University (his last two books were social histories of eating). "I was always curious about what those other tourists were doing here. They seemed to have this love/hate relationship with the place."
He doesn't think this has much to do with the age-old antagonism between France and Britain. Until early this century, Americans were well viewed here, and it was French support for the American Revolution (against a common foe, perfidious Albion) that brought men like Jefferson to Paris. "There was a lot of talk about two great liberty-loving countries," Levenstein explains, "but Americans were very touchy about their lack of culture; they had this deep feeling of inferiority."
Two centuries ago, most American visitors were male, upper-class, loaded and alone. They came or were sent to Europe in search of culture, sure that lengthy exposure to paintings and opera would turn them into civilized gentlemen. France was Paris, where a man might also chance upon the sort of loose women puritan America hadn't even dreamed of; the rest of the country was of little interest, a squalid land of smelly peasants barely glimpsed from the carriage window on the road to Rome. "There is nothing of the wild and sublime to be seen" wrote one disappointed New Yorker.
"Seductive Journey" is full of quotes like this, culled from travel guides and personal diaries. It's astonishing to read how some things haven't changed. One 18th-century tourist was amazed to see that the French drank wine "as regularly at dinner as milk with our Kentucky farmers." Jefferson thought the endless meals, where food and wine were slowly savored, were highly civilized, especially as they never ended in drunken brawls, as they often did back home: "I have never yet seen a man drunk in France, even amongst the lowest of the people," he wrote. One Frenchman suggested Americans adapt a new motto to rival Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, "Gobble, Gulp, and Go."
Cultured visitors went to great lengths to learn the language James Fenimore Cooper subjected his family to three years of lessons before setting sail. But most made no such effort, and rarely even met any French people outside waiters and bellboys. "Our hotel is filled almost entirely with Americans," wrote one Bostonian happily. "On the boulevards I meet hundreds of my own countrymen."
Other things have changed immensely. In 1860, for instance, a state-of-the-art abattoir and the city morgue were both major tourist destinations. At the latter, unidentified bodies fished from the Seine were displayed naked on stone slabs.
Paris always seems to have represented liberty and romance, a dreamy, free-living city where straight-laced Protestants could loosen up a bit. A la carte restaurants, for instance, were virtually invented here, giving tourists a choice for the first time in their lives and allowing the classes to mix on the boulevard terraces in startling ways. By the late 1800s, women were even beginning to dine out, an unheard-of event in stuffy old America. It just about qualified as a pleasure of the flesh.
Which brings us to another traditional Parisian specialty. For many tourists, the infamous French depravity began in the Louvre, where bare breasts assailed the senses. Sensitive women turned away, then wrote home in disgust. Men headed for the extravagant bordels of the Palais Royal, and later to the bals populaires or Pigalle. Everyone went to the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge, often just to gawk at the prostitutes.
Levenstein argues that French anti-Americanism barely existed before 1917, when an odd combination of factors created a crisis. First came the doughboys, thousands of US soldiers demobbed at the end of World War One. Mostly poor and uneducated, they descended on Paris like Atilla's horde, boozing, brawling, and chasing women. Worst of all, they kept settling arguments with guns; in December 1918 alone, Americans in the Paris region were charged with 34 murders, 220 assaults, and 500 fights. US insistence that France pay its war debts made matters worse: in July 1926, a mob attacked a "Paris By Night" tour group, and both presidents had to call for calm.
I could go on: "Seductive Journey" is a superb read, full of good stories and well-edited quotes, its light and witty tone defying the serious research that hides below. The New York Times was right to select it as a notable book of 1998.
The book ends with the'20s, when the depression put a temporary stop to tourism. "For centuries, Paris has remained a special place in the American psyche, a place where romance can blossom... Beautiful things just might happen in your life." Levenstein has already begun researching a second volume, which will take the story up to the present day.
Harvey Levensten will discuss "Seductive Journey" at a Paris Connections soirée, Apr 25, 7:30pm, 36, rue Jacob, 6e, St-Germain-des-Prés; call Patricia Laplante-Collins for details on 01.42.61.37.00.