Why France?

Why France?: American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination

Laura Lee Downs
Stéphane Gerson
With an Afterword by Roger Chartier
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Why France?
    Book Description:

    France has long attracted the attention of many of America's most accomplished historians. The field of French history has been vastly influential in American thought, both within the academy and beyond, regardless of France's standing among U.S. political and cultural elites. Even though other countries, from Britain to China, may have had a greater impact on American history, none has exerted quite the same hold on the American historical imagination, particularly in the post-1945 era.

    To gain a fresh perspective on this passionate relationship, Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson commissioned a diverse array of historians to write autobiographical essays in which they explore their intellectual, political, and personal engagements with France and its past. In addition to the essays, Why France? includes a lengthy introduction by the editors and an afterword by one of France's most distinguished historians, Roger Chartier. Taken together, these essays provide a rich and thought-provoking portrait of France, the Franco-American relationship, and a half-century of American intellectual life, viewed through the lens of the best scholarship on France.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6481-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)
    Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson

    Why France? Answers will come, but first the question. It forced itself upon us in the spring of 2004, in Paris. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the leading association of American historians of France was holding its annual meeting on the banks of the Seine—far from the college towns in which it usually convenes. Hundreds of American historians descended on the French capital. In the National Library of France, they gave papers and attended roundtables; they rekindled friendships with American and European colleagues; they milled about, discussing their research and France and other things, too. Their voices echoed in...

  4. CHAPTER 1 A Medievalist and Francophile Despite Himself
    (pp. 21-34)
    John W. Baldwin

    On October 1, 1953, a twenty-four-year-old Fulbright student disembarked from the French liner Flandre at Le Havre in Normandy. Of the thirty-odd fellow Fulbrights on board, no one could have been less prepared for the future. He was a teetotaler and nonsmoker who did not know how to pronounce the French word for the ticket he held in his hand. Like the 70,000 young Americans who had preceded him to the Norman beaches a little less than a decade earlier, all his expenses were covered by the United States government, but unlike these predecessors, his prospects for returning were not...

  5. CHAPTER 2 A Mid-Atlantic Identity
    (pp. 35-46)
    Robert O. Paxton

    A smallish town in the Virginia Appalachians might seem impossibly remote from France. Even so, France was actively present in my home town in the 1930s and 1940s. Lexington is a college town. Two professors of French were frequent dinner guests of my parents. My piano teacher and church choir director, another frequent dinner guest, had studied in Nadia Boulanger’s famous summer course at Fontainebleau. A Catalan painter, Pierre Daura, had met a Virginia girl at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and married her. Exiled from Franco’s Spain, the Dauras made their home at St.-Cirque Lapopie in the...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Tough Love for France
    (pp. 47-60)
    Herman Lebovics

    All of my historical work (and much of my life) has been dedicated to refusing, disassembling, and attacking laws and rules. Questioning the idols of authority has not made my personal life or my professional one easy. But it has benefited my history writing by adding the passion of engagement to the scholarly work. When, in my late twenties, I had become emotionally and intellectually ready, France took a privileged place in my imagination as the homeland of secularism, freedom, and equality—of rules not imposed from above. But to discover this potential France, I soon learned, I first had...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Fantasy Meets Reality: A Midwesterner Goes to Paris
    (pp. 61-72)
    Lynn Hunt

    F. Scott Fitzgerald opened the door to France for me when I was sixteen. Since he had grown up only a few blocks away from our house in St. Paul, Minnesota, curiosity prompted me to read Tender is the Night, set on the French Riviera. One novel quickly led to another and yet another, and soon I had devoured all of Fitzgerald, then all of Hemingway, Stein, and the rest of the “lost generation” of American expatriates in Paris. Without Fitzgerald, France would have meant to me what it meant to any other ordinary kid growing up in the midwest...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Défense d’afficher . . .
    (pp. 73-88)
    Steven Laurence Kaplan

    France had no place in my Brooklyn childhood, which was drenched in schmaltz rather than sauce béarnaise and framed by deeply ambivalent memories of another Europe from which my grandparents and parents had fled in the wake of World War I. France was one of numerous exotic encounters I had in my first year at Princeton in 1959. I took a “Renaissance-to-Revolution” European survey, small class format, taught by a reasoned and refined yet passionate Francophile, Charles Gillispie, whose rigor and generosity would deeply mark my life in personal as well as intellectual terms. He awed me because he was...

  9. CHAPTER 6 France for Belgium
    (pp. 89-98)
    Gabrielle M. Spiegel

    It is my profound conviction that what we do as historians is to write, in highly displaced, usually unconscious, but nonetheless determined ways, our inner, personal obsessions. At least this holds true for the historical work that we feel we have to do, as opposed to the manifold professional obligations undertaken as part of the normal course of a career. In my case, the governing inner agenda remained unknown to me until I reached my mid-forties. But looking back, I can see how it shaped both my need to be a historian in the first place and the circuitous paths...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Why Paris?
    (pp. 99-110)
    Barbara B. Diefendorf

    My Dutch grandmother explained my fascination with French history as the product of the small drop of French blood flowing in my veins from the seduction of one of my Dutch foremothers by a French soldier during the wars of the Revolution. She waited until I was in my mid-twenties to tell me this, presumably so as not to shock me, because at the same time she warned me not to be judgmental: “Times were different then.” The story came to mind as I pondered the paths this autobiographical sketch might take. I am acutely aware of how the narrative...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Catholic Connections, Jewish Relations, French Religion
    (pp. 111-122)
    Thomas Kselman

    I can imagine many explanations as to why I ended up studying the religious history of modern France. From a professional perspective, the shrine of Lourdes was a topic ripe for the picking in the 1970s, a way to combine concerns for social movements in the nineteenth century with the growing realization of the power of religion as a mobilizing force. I have no doubt that professional considerations played a role in my decision to study France, but it seems to me that personal factors were equally important, and that the place to begin any explanation of why I did...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Europe without Personal Angst
    (pp. 123-136)
    Jan Goldstein

    I never set out to become a historian of France. Even after I decided to go to graduate school in history, I had no intention of devoting my energies to the Hexagon. In fact, even after I had spent over a year doing dissertation research in Paris in 1973–1974, I still thought of myself as a modern European intellectual historian whose first project happened to be about France but whose subsequent projects would no doubt focus on other countries. So fluid was my professional self-definition at the end of that year that I was actually taken aback to learn...

  13. CHAPTER 10 France, a Political Romance
    (pp. 137-150)
    Edward Berenson

    I wish I could say that I had nothing but deep intellectual motivations for studying France, but the truth is: there was this girl. She was a young woman, of course, a brilliant fellow Princeton undergraduate who became my wife and later my ex. She spoke beautiful French and knew French history, writing a senior thesis on the nationalism of Maurice Barrès. I had never learned or even uttered a word of French, but Cheryl wanted to study in Paris and I went along for the ride.

    It was the winter of 1973, and I had just been freed from...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Choosing History, Discovering France
    (pp. 151-162)
    Herrick Chapman

    Just what possessed me to give Robespierre’s final speech before his appointment with the guillotine in my high school’s annual oratorical contest I cannot say for sure. “The defenders of liberty will be but outlaws so long as a horde of knaves shall rule!”—lines like these first uttered by a man with a checkered reputation were hardly calculated to win over the faculty jury, much less my fellow students in Denver’s East High School auditorium. We amateur orators knew full well that courtroom speeches by Clarence Darrow usually brought down the house in these contests (as one did again...

  15. CHAPTER 12 An African American in Paris
    (pp. 163-176)
    Tyler Stovall

    So occurred the rather inarticulate birth of a French historian. The above passage more or less recapitulates my first meeting with my graduate advisor, Harvey Goldberg, when I began my studies for a doctorate in European history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I start this essay with it in order to make the point that my choice of French history as a profession was very much a matter of happenstance. When this conversation occurred I had only been to France once in my life, for a few weeks the previous summer, and while I had studied French for a...

  16. CHAPTER 13 Writing at the Margins
    (pp. 177-188)
    Leonard V. Smith

    The French army archives at the Château de Vincennes, where I did most of the research for my doctoral dissertation, was the most agreeable place I have ever worked. They were much less frequented in the mid-1980s than today, still less frequently by researchers not working on genealogy or Napoleon. It was easy for me to become a curiosity for the staff, which comprised a few civilians and some military personnel, including the petits militaires who actually fetched the cartons. Their concern for my welfare and their indulgence (particularly with the photocopy machine) did much to belie the stereotype of...

  17. CHAPTER 14 It’s Not About France
    (pp. 189-202)
    Ken Alder

    Stick a pin into the geographic center of France and it will poke through near Bruère-Allichamps, some forty-five kilometers south of the cathedral town of Bourges. Or at least that was the location of France’s center as calculated in 1799, soon after Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain completed their seven-year survey of the French meridian to establish the length of the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. There have, of course, been other contenders for the nation’s balancing-point in the past two hundred years. As France’s fortunes have shifted, so has its...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Pilgrim’s Progress: From Suburban Canada to Paris (VIA MONTREAL, TOKYO, AND TEHRAN)
    (pp. 203-214)
    Clare Haru Crowston

    Why France? The short answer is Blame Canada. Or, more precisely, blame Madame Boucher, my second-grade French teacher, and her ingenious reward system: a paper ticket for each correct answer; a gold star in exchange for five tickets. “Bonjour, Madame,” “Puis-je vous aider?” “Je voudrais une pomme.” Greeting customers, shopping for wax apples and bananas; my affinity for the French language and my future interest in material culture were predetermined by the lure of colored tickets and shiny stars. Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1970s, French-language classes were a federal requirement. No one acquired real spoken...

  19. CHAPTER 16 Between Douai and the U.S.A
    (pp. 215-226)
    Todd Shepard

    It was during my first flight across the Atlantic that I abandoned all allegiance to the Republican Party. It was 1985, and I was on the way to spend my junior year of high school as an exchange student in France. The trip from suburban Rochester, New York, had already been eventful, starting at the airport with an early morning sighting of the rap group the Fat Boys, then my first ever bird’s eye view of New York City—my first actual visit would have to wait until college—and finally meeting the other sixteen- to nineteen-year olds who would...

  20. Afterword
    (pp. 227-232)
    Roger Chartier

    The question that Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson put to the sixteen American and Canadian historians who contributed to this volume was a terribly simple one: “Why France?” Nothing could be easier, it might seem, than to explain how a foreign country became the focal point of a scholar’s research and thus a place to visit often and in which to reside for extended periods of time. A simple question, then, but a supremely difficult one to answer. Illustrious predecessors in the genre had bequeathed powerful images: on the one hand, nostalgia for a France that no longer exists—...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 233-238)
  22. List of Contributors
    (pp. 239-242)