Thomas Wolfe’s Paris, Revisited

Presented by Frank C. Wilson
at the Thomas Wolfe Society meeting in Paris, May 19-23, 2009

Thomas Wolfe came to Paris six times. During his first trip in December, 1924, he, along with Kenneth Raisbeck, Majorie Fairbanks, and Helen Harding “did” Paris, more in the fashion of expatriate artist than tourist. Since Wolfe was not yet an established writer, this approach reflected temperament and yearning rather than literary status.

During his second trip a year and a half later, he began the autobiographical outline for what would become Look Homeward, Angel.

He visited Paris again in 1928, 1930, and in 1935, the latter coincident with the publication in America of Of Time and the River.

His sixth and final visit to the City of Light was by train from Berlin, following the 1936 Olympics. The arrest of a Jewish traveling companion during this trip stirred Wolfe to write his powerful short novel, “I Have a Thing to Tell You.”

I came to Paris, camera ready, over 60 years later, having decided, as a meaning of exploring the city, to visit those places mentioned in Wolfe’s writings. My talk today is the outcome of that visit, in which I hope to give you, by picture and comment, the reactions of Thomas Wolfe–aka Eugene Gant–to the sights and sounds of Paris, as recorded in Of Time and the River.

Although initially less taken with Paris than with Munich, his relative disaffection for Paris seemed to stem from the climate, which he found enervating, rather than from the City itself.

Commenting on the people he encountered, Eugene says:

They were a quaint lot, a droll lot, an incomparable lot–they were chaming, amazing, irresponsible–they were “French.”

As he slowly became intoxicated by the City, he noted that . . . everything that has been said or written about Paris is true . . . it is evil; it is beautiful; and it is fascinating; it is bewildering. For the first time in several years I am faced with an utter suspension of my faculties.

Wolfe’s enchantment with this legendary City was tied to a storied history that began over 2000 years ago, when a tribe of Gauls called the Parisii built a village on the larger of two islands rising from the broad and navigable Seine. To their Roman conquerors, the site seemed well-suited for a fortified town, surrounded as it was by a natural moat of water. This island, now the Îsle de la Cité, was the egg from which modern Paris was hatched.

From this focal point, Paris grew in outward circles, like rings in a tree. Lightning struck the tree in 1789 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King” and most absolute of the monarchs, moved the seat of the government from Paris to Versailles, where he converted a hunting lodge into the most fabulous palace the world had ever seen.

The City’s revenge for this insult came with the Revolution, when a Parisian mob marched out to Versailles and dragged the absentee King, then Louis XVI, back to Paris.

If the City owes her location to a river and her status to a revolution, Paris is indebted for her beauty to a tyrant. Napoleon III, nephew of the Corsican, made up in city planning what he lacked in military and political skill. Between 1850 and 1870, with Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of Paris, he carried out the most magnificent facelift ever performed on an entire municipality.

Order was brought to the chaos of ancient cobblestone streets by the creation of wide, surgically precise boulevards flanked by palatial buildings and shaded by 250,000 chestnut and plum trees.

The medieval brickwork of the Îsle de la Cité was transformed into the Cathedral of Notre Dame. From the Arc de Triomphe, 12 avenues were created that radiated star-like to give the area its first name, Place de L’Étoile, now Place Charles de Gaulle–a name change that undoubtedly pleased the politicians of Paris more than the poets.

As one faces downstream from any of the 32 bridges that cross the Seine, the Right Bank will be on your right hand to the north, the Left Bank to the south. The Right Bank, which includes the Champs d’Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre, is elegant, fashionable, and fastidious. The Left Bank contains those more disheveled parts of the City dedicated to art and scholarship, including the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne.

For Thomas Wolfe, Paris unfolded in three layers:

The first and most striking is found in such spectacles as the nocturnal sweep of the Champs d’Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. A second, quieter level is seen in the soft intimacy of urban parks.

The third layer reveals itself to those who forsake the boulevards to nose through narrow alleys and shaded courtyards.

Wolfe, an inveterate prowler, provided written images for many of these picturesque scenes; but preferring the boil and pour of Parisian life, he wrote more of the cafés and quais than of traditional landmarks.

He did not, for example, comment on the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps he shared the view of architects and aesthetes alike who have deprecated it as a damned lamppost that ruins the skyline.

Of the Louvre, one of the world’s largest palaces, and its collection of over 200,000 artworks, he wrote:

the Louvre again today; Salle Rubens with all the meat–all the people clustered about dull Mona ugly Lisa–

It was on the steps of the Louvre, shortly after his arrival in Paris, that Eugene met Starwick, his mentor and closest friend at Harvard, noting that he,

 . . . still carried a cane and twirled it indolently as he came down the gray stone steps . . . worn and hollowed by the soft incessant eternity of feet.

But neither the Museum itself, nor the architectural splendor of European churches seemed to spark Wolfe’s descriptive muse. Not the gargoyles, nor the flying buttresses, nor the Rose Window of Notre Dame drew comment, even though this Great Cathedral lies both historically and geographically at the hub of the City.

But he might be seen walking raidly up the Avenue de l’Opéra . . .

” . . . until the great soaring masses of the Opéra stood before them.” That he actually attended the Opéra one night is noted by a journal entry that said only: “Remember Faust at the Opéra.”

Although Tom/Eugene recounted passing through the Place Vendôme, he does so without comment on either this gem or classical French architecture or its 140-foot column commemorating Napoleon’s greatest victory at Austerlitz.

From the sidewalk of a small café on Rue Royale, he observed that he could see

to the one hand La Madeleine, patron church of Paris; and

to the other, Place de la Concorde, which, with its 3,300 year old Egyptian obelisk, is one of the most beautiful urban squares in the world.

He also spoke of attending the Comédie Française, the French national theatrical company,

citing the ” . . . plain and beautiful façade of the Comédie” and commenting that his respect for the play grew throughout the evening.

Though fascinated by its “narrow streets and . . . two foot sidewalks,” Wolfe dismissed the Latin Quarter by noting “the haggard steep facades of the old shuttered houses . . . and its empty streets . . . , which seemed to be the image of the unquiet loneliness that beset him . . .”

and, for reasons unknown, he ignored the subdued and reclusive halls of Sorbonne.

In the more serene reaches of the City, his descriptive powers emerged. He spoke repeatedly of the light fog that enveloped Paris,

 . . . like a vision of an impossible and unapproachable loveliness, out of a huge opalescent mist . . . threaded forever by the eternity of its silver, silent river.

On brighter days, he noted a,

 . . . lemony sunlight . . . falling on the old pale walls and roofs and chimney-pots of Paris . . .

And as bacchanalian night gave way to the hush of morning, he might be found sitting

” . . . at a little all-night café . . . watching . . . light widen across the sky behind Montmartre–a wide strip of blue-gray . . . a strip of violet light.” This, he noted, was “a good time now, just before dawn and morning . . . the burnt-out candle-end of night . . .”

Wolfe also responded to the tranquil beauty of the City’s gardens, listing among places to be revisited the “old quarter again around Place des Vosges,” a sedately lovely spot surrounded by a harmonious blend of brick and stone.

Ancient cafés, such as the Café Procope, also seemed to evoke in Wolfe a sense of place. He observed that,

 . . . the old café seemed to possess them, to make them its own, . . . it was one of those places that one thinks of at once, instinctively, . . . as being a ‘good’ place, and yet they could not have said why.

Perhaps this empathy came from a feeling of unity with the great figures of history commemorated on this plaque: Voltaire, Robespierre, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Anatole France, who had sat and drank at the Café before them.

Another “good place” was the Hotel D’Alsace, where Wolfe lived in 1925, the year before he met Aline.

He lived in a little hotel in the Rue des Beaux-Arts. He had a good room there, which cost him 12 francs a day. It was a goot hotel and was the place where Oscar Wilde had died.

But it was the café life of Paris that accounted for most of Wolfe’s energy and prose. He shuttled nightly between the two blazing poles of Montmartre and Montparnasse.

Montmartre, the Mountain of Martyrs, and center of the artistic commune in Paris prior to World War I, had become, from the Folies Bergére, and the Moulin-Rouge to Pig Alley, Brobdingnagian in promise, Lilliputian in delivery.

There is a line in Of Time and the River recounting a night at the Folies Bergére. It is unlikely, however, that Manda Djinn, even with the help of Estelle, matched the effect in Wolfe’s time of Josephine Baker descending its celebrated staircase tossing the bananas that constituted her costume into the audience.

The Moulin Rouge still has its windmill and Can-Can, though its old élan is less evident.

At another point, perhaps referring to the Pigalle, Eugene recounted,

 . . . sitting at a table in one of the night places of Montmartre. The place was close and hot, full of guilt and glitter, heavy with that unwholesome and seductive fragrance of the night that comes from perfumery, wine, brandy, and the erotic intoxication of a nighttime pleasure-place. Over everything there was a bright yet golden blaze of light . . .

By the end of the War, Montparnasse had replaced Montmartre as the artistic and intellectual center of Paris. Located on the Left Bank, this center of bohemian life spawned cafés where artists, writers, and political exiles talked of revolution and reform throughout the night. It is easy to imagine the attraction this atmosphere of spirited iconoclasm had for Thomas Wolfe. Always more at home with those who did not belong, where disrule prevailed over order, and with people rather than monuments, he returned again and again to its crowded cafés.

Of Le Dôme, most famous of the Montparnassian cafés and

La Rotonde, mentioned in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Eugene says,

 . . . he would meet them at the Dôme or the Rotonde. When he got there, they would be sitting at a table on the terrace, and already very gay. Starwick would have a stack of saucers racked up before him on the table. On each saucer would be a numeral which said 3:50 or 5:00, or 6:00 . . . francs, depending on what he had been drinking . . . usually it was cognac.

Among other bistros taken in were Le Select, where Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth began his affair; and

La Closerie de Lilas, a Hemingway favorite. It was here that Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to read his latest manuscript, The Great Gatsby.

In Prunier’s, the classic seafood restaurant,

Eugene commented on the old men who seemed wise, kind, and suspicious.

After a night of revelry, he might go to Wepler’s for brunch, where he observed

 . . . the men playing billiards in front of me, the soft European romanticky café music . . . the laughter and talk . . . the sprouting moustache-ends–the waiters . . .

who created an atmosphere very different from that of the 49th Street Grill.

Harry’s New York Bar, one of the most famous bars in the world, sacred to Hemingway disciples as the spot where Ernest did most of his Parisian imbibing, was also frequented by Wolfe, although he usually opted for boisterous sidewalk cafés over the more sedate, inside drinking establishments. But he and his companions did not limit their rounds to well-known bars. He describes one night they spent together,

. . . somewhere in that ancient, foul, and tangled quarter between the Boulevard des Sébastapol and Les Halles . . . from 1:00 to dawn they threaded noxious alleys, beside the shuttered facades of ancient . . . houses, and stopped at every blaze of garish light to enter these little dives, . . . where there was always the . . . swelling, faintly unctuous and seductive music of accordions.

Other haunts were the . . .

Café de la Paix, which commands the approach to the Opéra;

Brasserie Lipp, where he, like many before and after, sampled

cervelas remoulade;

Drouant’s, a classic French restaurant, of which he said, ” . . . very rich, red restaurant filled with businessmen . . . ,” and Les Deux Magots, another Parisian landmark.

In time, however, the enchantment and enjoyment of café life was cast over by a feeling of monotony and repetition.

He noted ” . . . the banal life of cafés, . . . people gesticulating and talking, . . . the eternal figure of the waiter with his long white apron.”

If the center of nocturnal life was the café, the bookstalls of the quais formed its daytime core. The Faustian wave that had broken over him in Boston crested, then receded, in Paris. Shortly after his arrival in 1924, he noted that,

The hopeless and unprofitable struggle of the Faustian life had never been so horribly evident as it now was–the futility of his insane efforts to memorize every stone and paving brick in Paris.

During one visit to the bookstalls along the Seine, after looking over a thousand books, he bought “a dozen or so.” Later he noted, “The Faustian Hell again.”

After seeing Faust at the Opéra, however, he began to display the insight needed to curb his impossible dream.

I am getting a new sense of control–millions of books don’t annoy me so much–went along the Seine today after Louvre . . . I must begin to put up my fences now–I can’t take the world or this city with me.

Later he confided,

It was all gone now–the devouring hunger and the drowning horror, . . . the blind confusion of the old swarm-haunted mind of man–the fruitless struggle of the Faustian life–

and in its place he had the glittering toy, the toy of . . . enchantment and of quick possession.

There are surprisingly few references in Wolfe’s commentaries to the many expatriate American writers and artists who had fled to Paris during the Twenties. Perhaps because Wolfe was not yet an acknowledged author, he shunned identification with this group–although we know he visited “Shakespeare and Company,” Sylvia Beach’s bookstore and meeting-place for English-speaking writers. Her posterity assured the publication in 1922 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Wolfe was unimpressed, writing ” . . . got taxis and went to Mrs. Beach’s (had impulse to take drink before seeing her)–saw her, did take drink–”

Wolfe does not record a meeting with Gertrude Stein, who had told Hemingway that they were all members of a “lost generation” (thereby coining a phrase), but one might imagine Wolfe making a comment similar to Hemingway’s in A Moveable Feast:

She got to look like a Roman emperor and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors.

Eventually, however, homesickness replaced enchantment, and as

 . . . the strange and alien life of this magic city which was so seductive but so unalterably foreign to all that he had ever known . . . began to weigh inexplicably upon a troubled spirit, to revive again the old feelings of naked homelessness . . .

He recalled a song,

 . . . that Mistinguett had made famous; its name was “Ça, C’est Paris” and one heard it everywhere . . . it was one of those songs which seemed to evoke perfectly–it is impossible to know why–the whole color, life, and fragrance of a place and time as nothing else on earth can do . . . for the boy, that song would haunt him ever after with the image of Paris and of his life that year . . . the song had for him the fatality of something priceless, irrecoverably lost, full of the bitter joy and anguish we can feel at twenty-four.

Click here to watch a video and hear Mistinguett sing “Ça, C’est Paris.

For more enjoyment of expatriates in Paris circa 1935–architecture, dress, club life, dances, etc., you might enjoy, click here. See actual film footage taken in 1935 of Paris, the Eiffel Tower and cafe life.