May 29, 2005
Found in Translation
By STACY SCHIFF
BY now it is something of a migratory pattern. Canada geese fly south in the winter; Americans flock to France in the summer. The trip today is easier than it was in the 19th century. Then it was said that a good American went to Paris when he died; a good American need now only hoard his frequent flier points. But the city beckons still as a paradise, robust euro aside. An American in Paris is a liberated (and yes, sometimes liberating) American. He remains a cause for song and celebration, a four-word recipe for happiness.
It was by no means love at first sight. Long before Gene Kelly danced in Paris, John Adams tore his hair out there. In the 1770's and 1780's the greatest collection of brainpower this country had to offer found itself installed in the French capital. They were miserable. Almost to a man, the founding fathers looked upon Paris as a hardship posting. To their minds a farm in America would have been preferable. So would the job as doorman in Congress.
"We all pant for America, as will every American who comes to Europe," wailed Thomas Jefferson, in 1785. Part of the problem was that Paris was unforgivably foreign. There was neither a bowl of Indian pudding nor an uncoiffed head nor a bashful female in sight. (Nor was there a Protestant chapel, aside from the one in the Dutch Embassy.) As Mark Twain gasped later: "In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."
Loyalty played a role too, along with its brawler of a cousin, chauvinism. "This is a very fine country," allowed John Jay, "almost as much so as our own, but not quite." He was among the first to grasp that the French capital did nothing for an American's self-esteem. One unilingual American could not bring himself to contemplate a Parisian appearance; he shuddered to imagine how "extremely awkward, insipid and uncouth" he would seem, especially to French ladies. That craven soul was George Washington.
And too the American relationship with France got off on the wrong foot. That country was inexcusably good to us. Washington won his first victory in 1776; the war continued until 1783. Over the course of those years the American Revolution was to a great extent a French venture; the original cast of Americans went to Paris to borrow, not to spend. For its own reasons (and against all logic) Versailles was fantastically generous. Yorktown constituted as much a French victory as an American one; Washington's men were clothed, armed and paid by France, joined by an equal number of French troops, and protected by a French fleet.
Critical as it was, that assistance only pointed up our helplessness, to be followed by a long line of condescending, menu-translating maîtres d'hôtel. It may be as difficult for us to forgive the French for having underwritten our independence as it is for the French to forgive us for having liberated them in 1945.
As in so many other arenas, Jefferson proved accommodating in his relationship with France. He confined his displeasure to the French weather (insufferable), the French government (abominable), French morals (pestilent), and French poverty (unspeakable), before falling, as soon as the sun came out, head over heels in love with Paris.
He was not the only convert. The city of light struck Abigail Adams as a den of iniquity, the world's filthiest city in every sense of the word. At the theater she cringed before the flying petticoats, the visible garters, wholesale affronts to her sensibilities. (She would have been more scandalized yet had she known that those undergarments were a rarity. The women in the audience next to her were unlikely to be wearing any.) Eight months later Mrs. Adams was instead appalled by her own behavior: "I have found my taste reconciling itself to habits, customs and fashions which at first disgusted me." The distaste melted to pleasure; she became a balletomane. The conversion from Paris is "the very dirtiest place I ever saw" to "nobody ever leaves Paris but with a degree of tristeness" took less than a year.
Who knows what would have become of Mrs. Adams had she stayed any longer; here was a country that tried men's souls. And strange things happened to Americans when they debarked in Paris - a sort of early Las Vegas. Following in Mrs. Adams's tradition, Twain dutifully covered his eyes at the Folies-Bergère. He also peeked. Jefferson developed a ruinous taste for French housewares. Wealthy American women went entirely to pieces. No sooner had they set foot in Paris than they were slathered with rouge, dripping in jewels. They looked preposterous, the more so as French fashion fit uncomfortably on the larger-boned American frame.
Long before the American in Paris was a myth it was a morality play. On that front Jefferson was clear: no other city in the world so severely tested a young man's virtue. Thirty years after his Parisian childhood, John Quincy Adams needled his mother on the subject. "If you or my father had known the moral dangers through which I passed, and from which by the mercy of Providence I escaped, I think neither of you would have had the courage to expose me to them," he chided.
He need not have worried. Both parents were fully alert to that city's depravity. Abigail Adams was quick to report on its 52,000 prostitutes. (Puritans too can be guilty of exaggeration. There were 14,000.) John Adams felt the city could "debauch angels." He distinguished himself as a man who couldn't wait to get back on the farm once he had seen Paree.
Before he did so, Adams put his finger squarely on the problem. He saw none of what a later traveler (James Thurber!) would extol as "the most beautiful surface of manners in the world." Instead Adams found French charm suspect from the start. He understood elegance and virtue to be natural-born enemies; Parisian luxuries struck him as toxic. He prided himself on his immunity to the city's ecstasies. Paris presented herself as a sort of litmus test of republican sensibilities; those who succumbed to her were stained. One proved one's republican stripes, one's moral fiber by resisting her.
ADAMS could not warn his countrymen often enough of the plague of Europe. These were years when the roles were reversed, when the New World feared contamination by the Old, when America feared European designs rather than the other way around. At our birth we fretted for our national identity - would a French alliance not in some way undermine it? - just as the French today stumble toward a vote on a European Constitution, one they fear may cost them their soul.
It should be noted that at its origin French-bashing had no political affiliation. (It would acquire one before the end of the 18th century, when "French" was the worst pejorative a Federalist could hurl at a Republican. In 1796 President Washington relegated the first tricolore - it was sent him by another proud, revolutionary government - to storage.) Nor had it anything to do with that seasonal, semi-serious, red-state snickering. There was no rounding up of the usual suspects: pretension, arrogance, rudeness.
Instead French disregard played a defining role for America: This was the stuff we were rebelling against. Benjamin Franklin made that point clearly. More diplomatic than his colleagues, he criticized the Old World only when trying to define the New. What he hoped to spare America was Europe's lack of opportunity, her inert class system. Insofar as he saw plagues in Europe, Franklin railed against heredity privilege and the cult of idleness. France went a long way toward winning us our independence. As important, she put the New in the New World.
And she continues to serve an essential purpose. "What I learned in Europe," wrote Saul Bellow, "was how deeply involved I was with the U.S.A." We may no longer be innocents abroad, but we have some inkling of who we are not. For that we'll always have Paris. It makes Americans of us every time.
Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company