Sunday, August 21, 2016

How to Be an American Writers, Part 3: U.S. Expatriate Writers (continued)

The roster of U.S. expatriate writers is a distinguished one. It includes Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. In the 1920s and 30s, almost the entire U.S. literary world decamped to Paris and the French Riviera, where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and many others spent a good part of those decades. Of course, part of their interest in the urbane, sophistication of Europe might have had to do with the fact that one could drink alcohol legally there, which was not true in the U.S after the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1920, the beginning of the Prohibition era. Another reason behind the expatriate lifestyle may have been the fact that it was much cheaper to live as an artist in Europe than in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Djuna Barnes
One interesting undercurrent in expatriate writing is the high percentage of gays and lesbians among the authors who left the U.S. Western Europe has long been ahead of our country in its embrace, or at least tolerance, of gay and lesbian lifestyles, and of LGB subject matter in literature. A majority of the expatriate writers I’ve mentioned have been gay or lesbian or bisexual, including Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Natalie Barney, and Henry James.

Even though the U.S. has become somewhat more sophisticated, the expatriate strain in American writing continues to this day. The author David Sedaris is a contemporary expatriate writer. Sedaris, who is openly gay, has purchased and renovated a cottage in Sussex in the U.K. and often writes critically of American naiveté, comparing it unfavorably with English and continental sophistication. All of this might start to sound familiar to those who read my last blog, which discussed Henry James.  

David Sedaris
Here’s David Sedaris’s critique of the attire of American travelers, from his essay “Standing By,” which appeared in The New Yorker, and which you can hear him read in his audiobook, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls:

“…everywhere I go, someone in an eight-dollar T-shirt is whipping out a cell phone and delivering the fine print of his or her delay. One can’t help but listen in, but then my focus shifts and I find myself staring. I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!’”

I’m always reminded when I take an airplane about how we Americans look when we travel. To be frank, it’s often not a pretty sight. Compared to U.S. citizens, Europeans and other nationalities are much better dressed and show much more respect for others in the way they present themselves, both in airports and in general. That European savoir faire is hard to find in the United States, and it’s not just a question of wardrobe. It’s also an outlook on life, an appreciation of beauty and elegance. I think the hunger for those qualities is part of the motivation of the expatriate American writer.

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