As I dig into the story of American journalism in Europe after the Great War,* there are several themes/topics that are unavoidable: Paris, the Lost Generation, and the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune among them.**
One of the things that became clear early on is that the popular image of the Lost Generation is too narrow: not limited to Paris, not limited to the usual suspects, and in many cases not lost.
France in particular drew writers because as Ernest Hemingway put it in an article in the Toronto Star, Paris “in the winter is rainy, cold, beautiful and cheap. It is also noisy, jostling, crowded and cheap. It is anything you want—and cheap.” Not only was the franc depressed, but Paris promised sexual and other freedoms and plentiful, good, and yes, cheap wine. The latter was a draw in the time of Prohibition.
Once there, many writers ended up working for a time at the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, dubbed “the world’s zaniest newspaper” by William Shirer.*** (A jibe at the Chicago Tribune’s sub-head: the World’s Greatest Newspaper.”) To my surprise, James Thurber was one of them.
I’ve been a Thurber fan since my freshman year in high school, when I fell in love with My Life and Hard Times. (I still think is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In fact, I blame it for the fact that this blog post did not appear on Friday. I pulled it off the shelf to see if my copy had a biographical introduction and was immediately sucked into Thurber’s world. Again.) But in my internal and often faulty timeline, he was solidly placed first in Columbus, Ohio, as a young man and then in New York in the 1930s and 1940s. Which is not incorrect, just incomplete.
It turns out that Thurber was definitely a contemporary of the Lost Generation, though he didn’t make it into World War I because his eye sight was so bad. He was working as a newspaperman in Columbus in 1921 when he got the bug to move to France and write. (It appears to have been contagious.) It took him several years to get the trip organized, and when he got there things didn’t work out as planned. He ensconced himself and his wife in a farmhouse in Normandy, where he planned to support himself as a freelance writer while working on a novel. Writing the novel didn’t work out: “because I got tired the characters at the end of five thousand words, and bade them and novel-writing farewell forever.” And it turned out there was a lot more competition for freelance work than he thought. And it was a lot of work. (Both of these circumstances will sound familiar to my writing friends.)
When he applied to the Tribune’s Paris Edition for a job, the editor told him “I got thirty men ahead of you who want jobs.” Then he asked, “What are you, by the way, a poet or a painter or a novelist?” Thurber wisely didn’t mention the abandoned novel and answered that he was a newspaperman with five years of experience on the job. He started work the next day.
Working at the Paris edition was very different than working for the Columbus Dispatch, and Thurber earned a reputation for inventing parody news features (one of which almost went to print), phony column fillers, and mythical and eccentric guests who had recently arrived in Nice for the season, for the society page.
Even at a favorable exchange rate, the Thurbers’ francs ran out after a year. They moved to New York, and Thurber began to build a career as an important humorist and cartoonist, whose work always had an edge below the surface affability. Sounds like a member of the Lost Generation to me.
* Which is absolutely essential to understanding American journalism and the rise of Nazi Germany.
**Not to mention the Versailles treaty, the Russian civil war, and what I think of as Romantic Reds. None of which I intended to talk about today. Though they could creep in. The Russian civil war, in particular, has been tracking me down for almost a year now and might decide that today is its day.
***Later the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer used his time the Paris Edition as a springboard to working as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune’s foreign bureau, which was not the same thing.