Seductive Journey

Read three excerpts:

"Levenstein's book is aptly named, for he lures us with the experiences of others through history.…Most significantly, though, the author traces the effect Americans in Paris had on tourism in Europe throughout the ages—and does it in a fun, almost rollicking fashion."—Booklist

"A lively social history of the varied delights that have at times drawn Americans to France. Levenstein…provides an entertaining and insightful overview of the very nature of France's centuries-long seduction of Americans.…Entertaining and informative, Seductive Journey is also a serious study of transformations of race, class structure, and gender occurring within American and French society and reflected in American Francophile tourism.… Enjoyable for scholars, travelers, and armchair dwellers alike."—Kirkus Reviews

Excerpts from
Seductive Journey
American Tourists in France
from Jefferson to the Jazz Age

by Harvey Levenstein


The first place most tourists got to use their French was in one of the Channel ports. The introduction of regular packet service made England the most convenient first stop on a continental tour, and France, a short hop across the Channel on one of the little steamers that were introduced in 1819, was usually the next stop. Alas, the customs sheds at Havre, Calais, Dieppe, and Boulogne often provided a kind of "good cop/bad cop" experience that was not conducive to contemplating the mysteries of the subjunctive. The bad cops were, of course, French officialdom, whose apparent thickheadedness has always baffled Americans. Passengers would arrive pale and shaky from seasickness (there are almost as many accounts of seasickness on the Channel ferries as on the transatlantic crossing) and first confront the disconcerting French police, who would take their passports, mutter something about retrieving them later in Paris, and demand payment for the process. Then came the gauntlet of grim customs officials who, after warning them that the penalties for smuggling contraband were extremely severe, would search their luggage for illegal imports—mainly tobacco and cigars. Sometimes men and women would be separated for body searches by agents of their own sex.

When they extricated themselves from customs, travelers would then find themselves surrounded by a disreputable-looking mob importuning them to go to certain inns, hire them as couriers, or just begging. However, once they selected one of the inns, their baggage would be whisked over there and the more attractive side of travel in France would soon emerge. Although they often looked tumble-down from the outside, the accommodations in the Channel ports were usually clean and comfortable, with attractive amenities such as fresh flowers. The major revelation, though, would be the food. Most Americans were accustomed to meals built around great slabs of fried meat and large mounds of potatoes, grains, beans, cabbage, squash, and pies. They used condiments but had a deep suspicion of sauces, which they had heard the French used to camouflage frog, horse, tainted meat, and other disgusting things. They were therefore pleasantly surprised at the lightness and delicacy of much of French food, particularly in comparison with theirs. The Georgian Ann Gordon seemed surprised that "the viands" in her family's first dinner in France were so "delicious.…There is no smell of garlic or taint as we generally have supposed." Even those not enthralled by their accommodations would be impressed by the food. The Philadelphian John Sanderson reported in 1835 that the hotels in Le Havre "are shabby compared to ours; the one I lodge in has not been washed since 1656; but the cookery and service are altogether in favor of the French."

In America, many men swilled whiskey all through the day, washed down meals with hard cider, and, if they were high class, fell into a postprandial stupor over flagons of port. Tourists were therefore amazed at how, as L. J. Frazee wrote, the French drank wine "as regularly at dinner as milk with our Kentucky farmers [who in fact were notorious whiskey-drinkers], yet show no signs of inebriation." Jefferson had been impressed by how formal dinners did not end up as drunken brawls, as they often did in America. He wrote,

In the pleasures of the table, they are far before us, because with good taste they unite temperance. They do not terminate the most sociable meals by transforming themselves into brutes.…I have never yet seen a man drunk in France, even among the lowest of the people.

James Fenimore Cooper made a similar observation. "A dinner here does not oppress one," he wrote. "The wine neither intoxicates nor heats, and the frame of mind and body in which one is left is precisely that best suited to intellectual and social pleasures." Light French wine and cookery, said Samuel Topliff, "always keeps Frenchmen's heads clear, and they are light of heels and merry of heart—they drink no grog [rum] to stupefy and benumb the senses."

Prim and proper Emma Willard, on the other hand, was rather put off by the loquacious sociability that wine encouraged at mealtime. Accustomed as she was to the silent religiosity with which genteel Americans consumed their meals, she wrote her sister of her disgust at the Frenchmen at her Le Havre inn's table d'hôte in 1830. "Oh! the deafening racket made by these Frenchmen," she wrote, "as they went on with their meal and became animated in their conversation. Such jabbering."

The leisurely pace at which the French ate also contrasted with Americans' penchant for bolting their food and rushing from the table. (The American motto, said one European observer, should be "Gobble, Gulp, and Go.") Tourists discovered that unlike American inns, where all of the dishes would be placed on the table at once and everyone plunged in at will, the dishes were served in at least three orderly courses. Generally, a first course of soups and other entrées was followed by one of roasts, and then dessert. "We were compelled to eat slowly or wait for some time upon others," L. J. Frazee wrote upon first encountering this in Le Havre. "While this would not suit one of our western men who is for doing everything in a minute," he noted, it did help digestion by giving one time to chew the food. It also allowed foods to be served fresh from the oven, something which was "of no small moment to the epicure." After eating "a great quantity" at a "very good" table d'hôte at his Marseille hotel, Amos Lawrence noted another advantage. "Eating one thing at a time enables one to consume an immense quantity if it be done in good order of meats first, without feeling oppressed."

By the 1890s, determined attempts at culture-centered tourism were becoming enmeshed in the controversy surrounding the emergence of the so-called "New Woman." High-quality women's colleges and state universities were now producing an educated elite of women who were trying to establish beachheads in medicine, social work, and other professions. Thousands of middle-class women joined women's clubs, which brought them out of their homes to discuss the issues of the day and made them feel that they had a voice in current affairs. Younger women were bicycling, exercising, and participating in sports-things that seemed to express their long-repressed sexuality. The drive to gain the vote gathered steam. Of course, exactly who this "New Woman" was depended very much on who was discussing her. Moreover, although many women saw her as an omen of their bright future, many men saw her as a dangerous threat to the established order. Inevitably, women's high profile in European tourism seemed to present them with a ready target.

Ironically, some criticism of the married New Woman sprang from the critics' notions that she was, in one of their own words, "the superior of her husband in education, and in almost every respect." This was most apparent in the popular stereotype of women tourists as overbearing culture vultures, marching through the Louvre bent on improving themselves. A popular turn-of-the-century doggerel had it that:

Mrs. Dick is very sick
And nothing can improve 'er
Until she sees the Tooleries,
And gallops through the Louver.

The backlash was also fostered by changes in middle-class men's concepts of manhood. A more physical, aggressive ideal of masculine behavior was coming to the fore, embodied by "take charge" men like Theodore Roosevelt. So, the other half of the Mrs. Dick stereotype was the weak, submissive husband being dragged along by her. In this reversal of what was supposed to be the normal order of things, the women were clearly in charge, not only of the cultural aspects of the tour, but of the whole touring experience. Their emasculated husbands were portrayed as longing to return home to America, where the proper family power structure could perhaps be reestablished. Henry Adams's typical male tourist was:

Bored, patient, helpless; pathetically dependent on his wife, and daughters,…the American was to be met at every railway station in Europe, carefully explaining to every listener that the happiest day in his life would be the day he should land on the pier in New York.

In an article for Everybody's Magazine, Booth Tarkington wrote of meeting a desperately unhappy Iowa businessman whose wife ventured into every church they passed because she wanted to report on European architecture to her women's club. He dreamed only of the day when his disgust with touring would surpass his fear of seasickness and he could convince her to return home ahead of schedule. Tarkington concluded:

He has hundreds of fellow-sufferers every year upon the Continent; like him in their loneliness, dazedness, and comprehensive protest…most of them bearing their woe in silence, and only turning the eyes of a sick dog upon the women-folk who have dragged them down to the sea in ships. The Continent holds no charm for them; they plainly hate it, seeing "nothin in it."

Men such as this represented exactly the opposite qualities—physical weakness, cowardice, and passivity—of those extolled by partisans of emerging new ideal of manhood.

Genteel women's freedom to engage in cultural tourism did not lead to similar freedom in other touristic spheres. As with the upper class, the Victorian restrictions on women's dining out unaccompanied by men became more onerous in the last two decades of the century, when the time of dinner shifted decisively from the afternoon to the evening, a time when they would be assumed to be on the prowl. One night, Jane Addams and a woman friend studying in Paris had an enjoyable evening meal at a modest restaurant, followed by a wonderful ride along the boulevards in the top deck of an omnibus. This was possible, she wrote her sister, only because they were accompanied by a male family friend. "We can do nothing of the kind," she added sadly, "after he leaves us." In European Travel for Women, Mary Jones warned, "Although Paris is essentially a city of restaurants and cafés, there are none to which it is pleasant for ladies to go by themselves, and you had better avoid them." She could only suggest several tea shops in "the English and American quarter" and, for lunch, one of the Bouillons Duval, where "you are waited upon by young women; although the company is not exciting, it is respectable." Other guidebooks said unaccompanied women could at least eat lunch at first-class restaurants, but most middle-class women bypassed them. In the 1890s, when they discovered Paris's pensions, they would breakfast there, lunch out at a modest place such as a Bouillon Duval, and return to the pension for dinner. In the evening, groups of women from the pension would go to the theater, opera, or concerts, but not to restaurants. Not surprisingly, some women felt that real independence came only from traveling with a man. "I never knew what fun one could have if one had a man to trot around with all the time," a recently married friend wrote Mary Peabody from France. "One sees and does so much more and feels so independent."

Women tourists were also criticized for being the opposite of the New Woman: shallow creatures who went to Europe only to shop, flirt, and find titled husbands. The first charge had little impact on upper-class women, who felt thoroughly at home among the couturiers and jewelers of the rue de la Paix. However, many middle and upper-middle-class women were more ambivalent about shopping. In the 1860s, the Scotch-Irish immigrant A. J. Stewart copied the French and opened up an immensely successful department store in New York City. In the ensuing decades, imitators providing an equally abundant selection of goods opened in New York and many other American cities. In some ways, this was a liberating process for middle-class women, for it legitimized their leaving the home for trips downtown and gave them more control over personal and household expenditures. At first, most religious leaders accommodated themselves to this rising consumer economy, but in the 1880s moral guardians such as the ex-preacher Edward Everett Hale began warning that the plethora of consumer goods being churned out by the new urban-industrial economy was encouraging an orgy of base materialism. By the turn of the century, Protestant reformers who preached the "social gospel" and advocates of "the simple life" were also condemning the materialism associated with rising consumerism and the growing quest for luxury. Since shopping for clothes and luxuries was now closely associated with women, the criticism seemed directed mainly at them.

Some middle-class women took this to heart and felt particularly guilty about shopping for fashionable clothes. Jane Addams inadvertently betrayed this when she arrived in Paris at the outset of her long cultural hegira in 1884. One of the first things she did was to go to a dressmaker to be fitted for a "traveling dress," a necessity in those days when luggage had to be sent ahead to major cities and women traveling by train had to spend days living out of small handbags. In a letter home, she pointedly regrets having being seduced by style at the expense of comfort. As if by divine retribution, the sleeves were too tight and, unable to move her arms freely in it, she had to take it off to write the letter. In other letters, she took pride in resisting the shops' temptations. American women usually broke their finances in the dazzling little jewelry shops of the Palais Royal, she said in one, but she "emerged unscathed."

"Willie" Allen, a Georgia schoolteacher touring Paris with five other women in 1895, tried to make their shopping seem like madcap fun, rather than anything serious. "It is amusing to see how crazy we are over the shops," she wrote home. "Not an hour passes but some one comes in with a remarkable purchase—usually of the value of 18 or 19 cents." Eleven years later, when escorting a group of high school girls in Paris, she noted how disruptive it was that one of them was allowed "to extravagantly buy anything that struck her fancy—demoralizing the others quite good deal." Mrs. Warren Tufts, a New York City widow on a conducted tour of Europe in 1907, noted with disgust that "members of the touring party [were] hopelessly weak when sightseeing; must have carriage," yet were "very strong when shopping; walk many miles."

More damaging to women, though, was the idea that each summer Europe was being invaded by armies of pretty, young, empty-headed American "flirts." (This was rather ironic, since, for most young American women, European touring posed quite the opposite problem: dealing with ogling men and suggestive comments.) Henry James, who was regarded as perhaps the most incisive observer of American behavior in Europe, was probably the major purveyor of this idea. His 1878 novel, Daisy Miller, about a very pretty and very superficial young American girl whose flirtatiousness with European men ultimately leads to her death, made her name synonymous with this stereotype. Concerns spread over the dangers courted by women such as she, who did not realize that what constituted innocent flirting in America was taken much more seriously by European men.

Perhaps worse, Daisy Millers were also said to be giving American women a bad name abroad. The author of Under the Tricolor, an 1880 book about Americans living in Paris, assured her readers that she always told the French that although "Daisy Millers" did exist and were to be seen in Europe, the more common kind of young American woman was to be found in Louisa May Alcott's books. When one of the heroines in the didactic book Three Vassar Girls Abroad is approached in a museum by a strange Frenchman who asks to carry her sketching box, she rebuffs him sharply. "I suppose he thought all American girls were like Daisy Miller," says her approving friend. The influx of unmarried women in 1880s and 1890s compounded these concerns. The New York Herald welcomed the "New American Girl" as "better dressed, better mannered, more lovable and lovelier than any maiden in Europe," but a Mrs. J. Sherwood wrote that each year Europe was flooded with eleven thousand virgins, all of whom were beautiful, but not all of whom were well-behaved. "Beautiful, rich, vulgar. Beautiful, rich, fast. Beautiful, rich, loud," were the universal criticisms, she said. A thoroughgoing snob, she thought it was the daughters of the nouveaux riches—the flirtatious Daisy Millers—who should be "repressed."…

Until the turn of the century, the word flirt, which entered the French language in the late 1860s, soon after it originated in America, was used mainly to describe American women. This reputation for flirtatiousness was particularly fascinating for the French bourgeoisie. The men would find it quite baffling that young virgins would engage men in frank exchanges with sexual undertones and yet have no intention of following up on this. Young, convent-educated bourgeoise French women, on the other hand, who were trained to believe that it was the quiet, demure woman who snared the husband, were fascinated by the ease with which American women handled themselves in the company of men and their apparent refusal to defer to men. (They tended to ascribe the differences to the Americans' coeducational schooling, and contented themselves with the knowledge, said one observer, that they would ultimately find liberty in marriage, while the Americans would lose it.)

By 1900, some bourgeoise French women were emulating these forward young American women. Sexy American dances were popular in fashionable women's circles; there was even a cocktail boomlet. The word flirt was transformed from a pejorative for aggressive American women to a description of a fashionable way of behaving. In the summer of 1904, the bourgeoise women's magazine Femina reported that "le flirt à outrance très américain" (very American outrageous flirting) was now the vogue in stylish Dinard. The popular writer André Tardieu derided these Frenchwomen's attempts at American-style flirting, not because they were unseemly, but because they were pale imitations of the real thing—like greenhouse plants compared to a sturdy outdoor tree. Femina was undeterred. It ran a story on two attractive young American "millionairesses" visiting Paris who did daring things (such as row boats and mount camels) that implied that French women would do well to imitate them. "American women are freer than French ones," it concluded, and this probably gave them more energy to do such things. It was not until after World War I, however, that American women's role would become a serious issue in France.

White American racism added another dimension to this reaction against American tourism. In French eyes, racism was yet another baleful aspect of American culture that tourists were importing to France. "America is a country in which it is a crime to drink, make love, or be a Negro," said the poet and theatrical producer Rodolphe Darzens.

The contrast between French and white American treatment of African American doughboys as well as the French government's denunciations of American racism in 1919 helped make France a magnet for African Americans in the 1920s. Black publications such as the National Association for Colored People's (NAACP) magazine, The Crisis, contrasted the equal treatment African Americans received in France with their ill-treatment back home. The Chicago Defender regularly reported on the warm welcome the French gave to black intellectuals, entertainers, and athletes. In August 1923, it ran a large front-page photo of French troops in the Ruhr, with a white soldier flanked by two tall black ones. The caption read: "This friendly intermingling is characteristic of the French, who have formed a lasting hatred of American whites because of their color prejudice."

African American writers and artists such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Paul Robeson, and other leaders of the 1920s "Negro Renaissance" felt they had found a refuge from racism in France. Well-off African Americans, with hardly a first-class hotel in the United States that would welcome them, discovered the relatively discrimination-free pleasures of touring France. They would sometimes stop at the Left Bank studio of black sculptor Augusta Savage to have busts of themselves made. Well-off black honeymooners began choosing Paris over Niagara Falls, where they had to cross over to the Canadian side for hotels that would accommodate them. By the summer of 1926, there were enough African Americans in Paris to support sales of the Defender there. "The whites have begun to notice the keen line of distinction the French draw between them and dark-skinned Americans," the Defender reported that August. "A black face is always preferable in resorts, cafés, hotels and other public places catering to foreign trade."

The black tourists appreciated such things as eating in places where the seats next to them did not remain vacant all through their meals. Yet, while they enjoyed their easy acceptance by the French, they could not ignore the hostility they sparked among white American tourists, many of whom refused to patronize the restaurants, cafés, and other public places that admitted blacks on an equal basis. Incidents such as that which befell Walter White, a light-skinned African American who became head of the NAACP, were common. When he sat down to dinner at a Paris restaurant with a dark-skinned friend, a white American at another table became apoplectic. He exclaimed, "The idea of a white man lowering himself to eat with a nigger!" and demanded that the black man be ejected, an order that the proprietor refused. There were frequent scuffles between black Americans and white Americans trying to eject them from Montmartre bars. American men caused nasty incidents almost nightly at the Moulin Rouge, where it was common for French women to dance with dark-skinned men.

In 1923, a major dance hall, the Bal Tabarin, caved in to the American pressure and advertised that whites only would be admitted. A Paris tourist agency announced that it would segregate the colors on tours, confining blacks to separate busses and train compartments. Another acceded to the demands of American tourists and refused to take four black French officer cadets on one of its Paris bus tours. A black French doctor who was a war veteran was refused service in a Boulevard Montparnasse bar that, in deference to its American patrons, adopted a policy of not serving blacks. In another widely reported incident, Americans about to set out on a battlefields tour in a charabanc objected to the presence of a black French surgeon, who had served in the army for four and a half years during the war. Their protests were ignored, and the vehicle set off. A few miles outside of Paris, however, they again demanded his removal. A heated argument ensued, in which the Americans, insisting they would not ride with a "nigger," threw him off the bus and forced the driver to continue on.

That black Frenchmen were on the receiving end of this treatment, and that some French people kowtowed to the dollar and went along with it, outraged much of the French press. Racism was an American import, they said, that should be resisted. Protests were made in the National Assembly. The French foreign office condemned tourists who, "forgetting that they should respect our laws and customs, have on several occasions violently demonstrated their disapproval of colored people from the French colonies sitting beside them in public places and, using abusive language, have demanded their ejection." If such incidents were repeated, it said, "sanctions will be taken." Premier Poincaré issued a declaration that it was "inadmissable that our compatriots from Africa, who showed their devotion to their adopted land during the war, should be insulted and ridiculed in their own land."

Hard on the heels of this, though, a group of white Americans drinking in a Montmartre bar demanded that two black men who walked in be ejected. When the blacks protested, the Americans, with the help of some waiters, pounced on them and threw them out on the sidewalk, breaking one of their eyeglasses. As it turned out, they had fallen upon Kojo Tovalou Houenon, a Dahomean "prince." He was not only the most prominent leader of the Pan-African movement in Paris, he was also an advocate of the view that France was not a racist country. Indeed, in February 1919 he had told delegates to the Pan-African Congress in Paris that they should look upon that city as the promised land for "the race of Cham," that "the great black family make Paris its spiritual home." Paris, he said, would become the Babel of the black race, because "not only is there no race prejudice in France, it is also fighting for its disappearance [in the rest of the world.]"

The French press erupted in outrage against the Americans. Le Temps pointed out that Kojo Tovalou was the respected author of a brilliant linguistic analysis of French and a philosophical inquiry into nature of liberty. Another paper said that white Americans, who themselves were not "thinkers or refined intellectuals," called Negroes inferior beings who could not understand the complexities of civilized life. Yet they had caused the barman to throw out "a veritable colored Pascal." President Poincaré issued another statement expressing his shock and ordered the bar closed. The prefecture of police announced that the race issue was now one of the government's foremost preoccupations and warned that any other establishment that tried to bar Negroes would also be closed. Poincaré followed this up by banning D. W. Griffith's epic movie Birth of a Nation, which demonized blacks as credulous rapists and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. The French government had only recently approved a severely censored version of the controversial 1915 film, and it had been shown for only two days.

The government action reinforced France's favorable image among African Americans. The Chicago Defender ran a cartoon of an axe, labeled "Premier Poincaré's Ultimatum," about to chop off the head of a serpent, "Color Prejudice," slithering onto France's shores from America. "'Keep Color Line at Home' says France," read one of its headlines. "We Talk, France Acts," was the headline of an article saying France did not "foster or tolerate institutions or practices that play up or perpetuate the pompous pride of one race at the expense of another." One of its reports from Paris said the controversy over Birth of a Nation had "increased the hatred for" white Americans. "The native shrugs his shoulders and says, 'Let them stay at home; we have no color line over here. We fight side by side, we eat side by side, we die side by side."


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 39-41, 187-195, and 263-266 of Seductive Journey by Harvey Levenstein, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Harvey Levenstein
Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age
©1998, 392 pages, 41 halftones
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-47377-2

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Seductive Journey.

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