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The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1944-1960.

The Continual Pilgrimage is an account of American writers in Paris between 1944 and 1960 presented in a series of vignettes. It begins with two contrasting icons, residents of prewar Paris: Hemingway, the obnoxious jealous revenant lurcher at the moment of Paris's liberation from the Germans, and Gertrude Stein, ever faithful to France but at the same time welcoming the American GIs who are among France's liberators. A chapter on the miseries of post-liberation Paris separates the two. There are three chapters on the American black writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, two on Anglophone publications in Paris - one on little mags and Girodias and his Olympia Press, the other on the Paris Review - two chapters on writers inspired by French writing - one on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the other on Harry Mathews and John Ashbery - a chapter on mainstream writers Irwin Shaw and James Jones in Paris, and a chapter on Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in the Beat Hotel. Sawyer-Laucanno suggests that Paris's respect for the artist as artist is the common element uniting the residents to their chosen city and each other.

Though this reviewer yields to no one in his dislike for Hemingway the man, I cannot help feeling that Sawyer-Laucanno exaggerates Hemingway's drinking, macho bravado and antagonism toward other writers at the expense of the sensitivity and extremely talented artistry which are the real excuse for his presence in the book in the first place.

In addition to Paris's general hospitality to writers, the book suggests especial welcome for blacks and gays, not too popular in their native land. But America remains a magnet. Even writers like Wright, Shaw, Himes, and Mathews, content to stay away, remain concerned about the reception of their work there. James Baldwin feels the need to return to "pay his dues," and most of the others find themselves sooner or later back in what to expatriates increasingly seems like "the old country."

There are a number of interconnections between these writers. The jealousies of older and younger authors, Hemingway's for Shaw and Jones, and the resentment of Wright by Baldwin and Himes, the common concern of Mathews and Ashbery on the one hand and Burroughs on the other for arbitrary linguistic experiments, Girodias at the center of the publication of free speech from Nabokov to Burroughs, the residence in the Beat Hotel of Chester Himes antedating that of the Beats themselves, the importance of Lucien Carr's murder of David Kammerer, a key event in the coalescence of the Beats, as a source of inspiration for James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, George Whitman's American bookshop in Paris as a model for Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, and the sense of American Big Brother looking over the shoulder of Wright, Shaw, and Burroughs are among them.

On the whole, Sawyer-Laucanno makes a good case for the symbiosis of Paris and the American writer. But there are minority views. For example, "Paris lay by like a promise accomplished: age had not withered her, nor custom staled her infinite vulgarity.... Paris, fortunate city! by now a swollen third of the way into the twentieth century, still to be importuned by those who continued to take her at her own valuation. Perhaps a kindred homage which rang across the sea was well earned (from a land whose length was still ringing with the greeting - Hello sucker!): perhaps fifty million Frenchmen couldn't be wrong," Mr. Justice Gaddis dissenting. No wonder he failed to find a place in The Continual Pilgrimage.
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Author:Ansen, Alan
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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