Anna Maydon on “The Art in Being: Robert McAlmon’s Expatriate Paris”
Robert McAlmon’s thinly masked memoir, The Nightinghouls of Paris, offers insight to the role of the expatriate publisher as one that places emphasis on the physical state of being – in the right place, with the right people, and most often, drunk. In these writings, compiled and published posthumously, McAlmon reflects on his meeting and guidance of young writers John Glassco and Graeme Taylor in 1928. Several prominent expatriate figures make their appearance throughout the novel. Although McAlmon altered the names of nearly all his contemporaries, the heavily studied accounts offer insight into what editor Sanford J. Smoller calls the “darker side of expatriate life in Paris” (Smoller 1) as the work encompasses sexual exploits, raucous behavior, and gossip – a slice of life that Taylor and Glassco become acquainted with under McAlmon’s guidance.
Through the young writers’ introduction into the chaotic nightlife along Paris’ Left Bank, as well as the bank’s attraction of “lost” artists, McAlmon provides a backdrop to voice his own ideological response to the productive literary decade. Much like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964) or Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Nightinghouls positions it’s writer as official commentator on the works and ideas of his contemporaries as a way of defining himself amidst the generation that “Knows [themselves] lost while viewing older or younger generations and types as unaware of their lostness and mediocrity” (11). It is through this lens of self-awareness that McAlmon’s philosophy of life as art begins to form.
Nightinghouls chronicles McAlmon’s contribution to expatriates abroad as the hard-drinking, nightlife-loving social coordinator of the decade, as well as a patron of arts by way of experience. McAlmon defines his role as provider of experience for a generation through his constant readiness to drink, party, and navigate amongst a variety of prominent circles.
For McAlmon, drinking, and the experiences it provides, offers a truer approach to living than art and work ethic alone can, and throughout the text he consistently contrasts other expatriate ideas to his own.
In discussing expatriate giant Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing, McAlmon writes, “A maggot-eaten dog to [Hemingway] was something to gaze at a long time, as if fascinated, to harden himself” (29). Conversely, McAlmon offers a picture of his own self-hardening not by thinking about how to create hardness nor by creating a persona, but through living hard, and drinking harder.
In commenting on other expatriates of the day, including Hemingway, McAlmon continues to define their incomplete approach by writing, “Among so many writers, one might pursue the phantom – intellect – but encounter mere shop talk and the diplomacies of writers pretending to be awed by the others’ successes” (56). The text again offers McAlmon’s actions as a response to the leading ideologies of the day: “In drink we grew more released than these people who made a cult of self-expression” (44). McAlmon places many expatriate writers in the category of “phantom intellectuals” and once again turns to inebriation as the higher form of art and of being.
In his defining roles as expatriate publisher and writer, Robert McAlmon’s affinity towards the up and coming artist is on full display in his memoir, The Nightinghouls of Paris (2007). The text displays the literary generation’s dependence on the social figures of the day, namely, McAlmon. In expatriate Paris, the philosopher, the artist, and the writer depend on the social being as the provider of experience and the ultimate patron of the arts.
Knoll, Robert. Robert McAlmon, Expatriate Publisher and Writer. University of Nebraska Press, 1959. Print.
McAlmon, Robert. The Nightinghouls of Paris. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
Mellow, James R. “Talent and All the Right Connections”. The New York Times. 2 Jul. 1990. Web.
Smoller, Sanford, J. Adrift Among Geniuses; Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties. Pennsylvania University Press, 1974. Print.
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