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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"We All Went to Paris: Americans in the City of Lights" by Stephen Longstreet

There are only a few bad reviews on this blog.  These are books I couldn't find a single positive thing to write about.  Some people say it is dishonest to try and "force" yourself to say something "good" about a "bad" book.  I'm not quite sure I agree with that.  While I was teaching, I used to give at least some partial credit (very low at that) to dismally written papers--an "effort grade" as opposed to a "real" grade.  Despite the fact that I have been out of academia for four years, I believe the tradition has continued unto this blog.  Of course, there will always be "those" books that break the mold, and authors who defy and challenge the most basic idea of literary decency.

I don't want to dwell too much on this book because since I have nothing (literally nothing) good to say about it, I will make it as brief as possible.  I didn't know who Stephen Longstreet was before I picked up this book years ago.  It has been on my list for a while, but I neglected over the course of a year or two to pick it up.  The volume is part of a "re-print" series by Barnes & Noble books titled "Barnes & Nobles Rediscoveries."  I am always open to suggestions, even the commercially driven ones by mega-bookstores, but this book in particular makes me wonder about that single person in that perhaps "under-populated" committee that went about selecting titles for this series.  At any rate, "We All Went to Paris" suffers from a distinct lack of coherence, both narrative and chronological.  Stephen Longstreet strikes the reader as Nick Carraway's self-description during the opening chapter of "The Great Gatsby" when in an effort to justify his activities and his move to the "big city" he calls himself "that most limited of all specimens: the well-rounded man."  Longstreet is just that--he changed his names numerous times (he was born with Chauncey as his last name, later changed to Weiner, Wiener, plus others) landing on Longstreet finally.  He had success as a screenwriter, an artist and a writer.  The Broadway musical "High Button Shoes" is based loosely on his autobiography.  Being multi-talented is not the issue here; the problem stems specifically from the way "We All Went to Paris" was written.  First, the book is not listed or credited to him on the various bio pages found during a quick Google search.  There's another volume titled "The Young Men of Paris" and I suspect that "We All Went to Paris" was a late "rehashing" of this original title.  If someone out there would like to put me in my place about this, please leave a comment and I'll correct the entry.

Americans have been traveling and enjoying the city of Paris since long before 1776.  I think the cut-off date of 1776 was a way to declare the title "American" as distinctly political--a tactic that allows Longstreet to begin with clarity and with a strong premise about who exactly he is writing about.  The book's chronology is lineal enough during the first 2/3rds of the book, but right around the period of World War I, the narrative begins a hopscotch labyrinth that is confusing and distracting.  The close reader can see through the confusion, but I must wonder about the "untrained eye."  The segments regarding aerial combat by Americans flyers during World War I doesn't seem to belong in this book (since most of the action does not take place in Paris) and one has to wonder whether it was pasted here from another volume.  Stephen Longstreet writes about his friendship with William Faulkner, and I wonder if this part of the book is not included here in order to cater to that connection (more on this later).  The disjointed chronology continues for most of the 1920s and 1930s, a period which has been written about extensively.  It appears Longstreet tried some type of experimental chronology, a classic case of "remember-this-because-it-is-going-to-show-up-later-and-without-the-reference-you-will-be-lost."  The problems is that he does not allow for enough cultural references to indicate to the reader where the narrative is going next.  Again, the segment on World War I aerial combat is the most clear example of this.

Stephen Longstreet preaches quite a bit on this book, and this preaching takes away from both the credibility and the enjoyment of the narrative.  Early on in the book, he writes about the horrors of war (during the Revolutionary War), injecting some quick Vietnam era "anti-war" lines that are unnecessary and misleading (the book was published in 1972).  He writes about the torment of napalm, of the massacre at My Lai, of how humanity continually fails to learn, etc., etc.  It immediately discloses to the reader that the bulk of the writing of this book was conducted during the late 1960s (all the while he's writing about Benjamin Franklin in Paris).  I am certain this kind and good message has a place in both our history and our literature; I am uncertain that it is here.

One cannot write about Paris without writing about sex.  In fact, one cannot write about anything in particular nowadays without writing about sex.  Longstreet varies between the very explicit and the very censored, and in those passages where his explicitness gives way to pseudo-pornography, one has to wonder whether this particular act or that particular escapade being so clearly detailed is not part of the author's own sexual preferences.  This is not troubling, really, but the fact that the reader can read through it as clearly as that (and I confess NOT to be such a close reader, really) is like opening the drawers of Longstreet's dark cabinet.  I don't want to go there, and I suspect neither does the general reader.  He writes a great deal about lesbianism in Paris in the 1920s but does so from the perspective of someone intrigued by it in a "laboratory rat" way--sort of as in "I wonder why Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein never went to be together, or while Alice and Sylvia and their partners didn't do a foursome."  He doesn't detail it that way in the book, but the suggestions and darkness of his assessments regarding lesbians are down-right eerie.

"The Lost Generation" of American expatriates what went to Paris in the 1920s should provide enough material here to yield a good account.  Longstreet manages to foul this part of the book as well.  First, it is during this part of the book that the chronology becomes confusing.  Secondly, Longstreet lashes out against the previous biographers of this era as overly-romanticizing it.  When not romanticizing it, he writes, then academics in their tall ivory towers ruin it by their pedantic, unwarranted ownership of the era and their characters.  This sounds a little too self-serving to me, personally.  Longstreet's long stretch of criticism of other biographers of "The Lost Generation" is childish and irrelevant.  He proceeds, without much caution or dissimulation, to do exactly the same thing in his writing that he blames others are doing in theirs.  The writing about Gertrude Stein is full of holes and misrepresentations taken from books and sources he previously criticized as unreliable.  He surrenders his objectivity to the "academic criticism du jour" of bashing Ernest Hemingway as too macho, too much a liar, too mean and ugly and drunk and (imagine that) not as big a talent as everyone claims he was.  I tried very hard to overlook this childish, schoolyard recess attack because I did want to continue reading the book.  Ernest Hemingway to me is a writer, just that... I am not a fan, or a cult follower, but this type of criticism is not based on objective reading or characterization.  I heard and was expose to a lot of it while in college and especially graduate school.  Longstreet really sounds like the bitter competitor who didn't grow as famous or known as his competition.  Again, this is very childish and down-right idiotic.  He also dedicates a chapter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which he writes very little about Fitzgerald.  His bitterness shines through in such a poor way it is nearly impossible to tolerate.  Also, the mention of Ezra Pound is so little that if the reader blinks at the wrong moment, he/she might miss it.

The art/sketches that are spread throughout the book are his, I am sure, and just like the epigrams at the start of each chapter they don't seem to belong where they are placed.  The epigrams (often one-liners) have absolutely nothing to do with the chapter that follow it.  Again, if this was Longstreet's way of being experimental, then I'll have to say that it sadly does not work.

Finally, there's a long epilogue where Longstreet quotes extensively from William Faulkner.  The epilogue aims to answer the question, well, "why did we all go to Paris?"  If this is constructed from simple notes on the conversation, then I am (being sarcastically mean here) impressed by Longstreet's ability to reconstruct a conversation at such length.  The impression one gets is that either 1) there was a voice recorder on during the meeting which Longstreet later transcribed, or 2) he made up most of it (a tactic he blasts all of "The Lost Generation" expatriates for engaging in).  I wonder if Faulker (a failed World War I flyer) wasn't the source behind Longstreet's inclusion of the misplaced historical chapters.

"We All Went to Paris" simply fails to deliver, and, as entertaining as many parts of it are, I cannot recommend it as worthwhile.  Sorry.

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