Americans Abroad

by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

The desire to explore other parts of the world is as old as humankind itself. This desire led to the discovery and settlement of America, and Americans have continued this tradition by returning to visit the Old World. A quintessential literary work depicting Americans abroad is “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway (published posthumously in 1964; Restored Edition: Scribner, 2009). This classic memoir evokes the exuberant Paris of the 1920s. It is filled with warm memories of Hemingway’s first wife, thoughts about his craft and irreverent portraits of other expatriate literary luminaries, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ford Maddox Ford.

The Paris Wife

An excellent companion to “A Moveable Feast” is Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife” (Ballantine Books, 2011). Although a fictionalized portrayal of Hemingway‘s first wife, Hadley, it offers a vivid addition to the woman-behind-the-legendary-man genre. McLain casts Hemingway as a troubled man whose talent is inspired — and marred — by his great capacity for alcohol and women, and she depicts Hadley as a brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and loneliness to prop up her husband’s career. This is a wonderful evocation of a time and place and a doomed marriage.

A broader American experience in France is presented by Adam Gopnik in “Americans in Paris” (Library of America, 2004). The book covers 300 years and engages its reader in a historical journey through the City of Light with letters, stories and essays written by American statesman, writers, soldiers and tourists. Gopnik’s subjects range from Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Henry James to James Baldwin and Jack Kerouac.

The Greater Journey

David McCullough offers another historical exploration of the same theme in “The Greater Journey” (Simon and Schuster, 2011). McCullough recounts little known stories of American artists, politicians, writers and future professionals who traveled to Paris between 1830 and 1900. Among them are Margaret Fuller, Mary Cassatt, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner and hundreds of American medical students who came to Paris at a time when France led the world in the field of medical science. The book also highlights the intersection of French and American history, as well as the American innovations that captivated the French. Did you know the American inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse, was an artist?

By no means is Paris the only destination desired by Americans. Frances Mayes has been singing hymns to Italy and its la dolce vita (sweet life) ever since the publication of “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Chronicle Books, 1996). Now in her sixth book “Every Day in Tuscany” (Broadway Books, 2010), she is still celebrating Tuscan landscape, art, friendship and food. In fact, for Mayes, who made Tuscany her second home, food is pivotal to her everyday Italian life. Mayes’ fans and those who liked “Eat, Pray, Love” (Elizabeth Gilbert, Penguin, 2007) will savor this book.

Not all Americans abroad experience a good life. Historian Charles Glass tells stories of the brave and the cowardly and those in between in “Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation” (Penguin Press, 2010). The book follows the lives of the nearly 5,000 Americans who lived in Paris during the German occupation. Among its subjects are Clara de Chambrun, whose life went on much as before — dinners at Maxim’s and dresses from Schiaparelli; millionaire Pierre Bedaux, who carried on his business affairs with the Nazi Germany; but also Sumner Jackson, chief surgeon at the American Hospital, who risked his life working with the Resistance. The author does not pass judgment but presents the reader with an array of choices made by ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals

A very different kind of tale is Maarten Troost’s “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” (Broadway Books, 2004). Troost and his wife, Sylvia, were truly innocents abroad when they moved to the island of Tarawa, a republic of tiny atolls located just above the equator, where Sylvia had accepted a government position. Tarawa is a place where dolphins frolic in lagoons and days end with glorious sunsets. Yet it lacks running water, television, restaurants, air conditioning, and —Can you believe it? — beer. Culture shock ensued, shattering the couple’s dreams of living in a paradise. Troost’s book is a hilarious and sardonic chronicle of the couple’s life in Tarawa, as well as a record of his admiration for its people.

Those who plan on jumping over the pond beware: “Every survival kit should include a sense of humor.”

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