Monday, April 19, 2010

Parisienne in Chicago

A short while ago I was asked to review "A Parisienne in Chicago" by Madame Leon Grandin. Written in 1894, this has been translated and an introduction written by Mary Beth Raycraft in 2010.

Madame Grandin gives her Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition. More than that she tells about life and travels as she and her sculptor husband cross the Atlantic from Paris to New York.

Not a true "travel" book, Madame Grandin certainly makes one see how it was to travel during 1893. Chicago as you've never experienced it...she writes in great detail how life and travels were in the "windy city". Here are some questions from an interview with Mary Beth Raycraft.

Why did you choose this book to translate?

My friend and former colleague, Arn Lewis, recommended that I consider a translation of Madame Grandin’s account. Arn is a specialist in Chicago history and architecture and found her reactions to the city very interesting. From the first time I opened her book in a Paris library, I was immediately taken with her lively tone and spirited reactions to American life.

When you investigated her life how did you know where to start?

Since she had published her book under her married name, I started by searching for information about her husband, the French sculptor Léon Grandin. He had attended the prestigious École des beaux-arts in Paris, and was quite well-known in the artistic community. After a circuitous path, I finally located his marriage certificate which provided important information about his wife. She was twenty years old at the time of their marriage in 1884 and employed as an elementary school teacher. Her full name was finally revealed: Marie Léonie Lédier.

When in France, did you see any remains of life as Madame Grandin described it? Not physically of course, but in theory or in flavor.

Madame Grandin was born and lived in the Montparnasse quarter. Although this neighborhood has changed quite a bit since the late nineteenth century, there are still some vestiges of the past. For example, one of the sculpture workshops where Léon Grandin worked in Montparnasse is now the home of the Musée Bourdelle. It is one Paris’ smaller museums and displays a great collection of sculpture and paintings in a charming, nineteenth-century setting.

Did you have any of the same feelings Madame Grandin portrayed in her book…about France, Paris, New York or Chicago? Is or was there a cultural difference for women?

Reading Madame Grandin’s criticisms of American women’s neglect of their domestic duties made me smile and think of some of my French women friends today. How do they find time to look fashionable, create a stylish home with that certain “je ne sais quoi,” read interesting books, and still manage to get a nice roasted chicken on the table for dinner? It seems that French women today just like Madame Grandin in the late nineteenth century, take pride in achieving a balanced life and along with that comes a well-organized home.

In terms of city life, although Paris, Chicago, and New York are all very international cities today, Paris still retains many of its quaint, old neighborhoods. Strolling through the village-life ambiance of those streets still creates a strong contrast to the more modern quarters of American cities.

How did traveling help you relate to her story?

Going back and forth between the U.S. and France to do research trips enabled me to make some of the same cultural comparisons as Madame Grandin. Also, talking to Parisians about her story allowed me to see how interested the French are in their history and in intercultural connections with America.

Our society travels so easily today between Europe and the US. How difficult do you think it was in her time to do this type of travel? Do you think it was made easier due to her husband’s position?

Madame Grandin’s lengthy description of the transatlantic crossing from Le Havre to New York emphasizes both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of overseas travel at the time. Though their French ship, La Touraine, offered luxurious salons and stimulating intercultural conversation, many passengers suffered from seasickness. The food was not very tasty and the second class cabin where the Grandins stayed was very small.

After landing in New York and spending a few weeks there with relatives, they took the train to Chicago via Niagara Falls. Although Madame Grandin found American trains more comfortable than their French counterparts, she disliked the sleeping cars which did not give her enough privacy.

Once in Chicago, the fact that her husband was an important sculptor working on a project for the Exposition definitely helped her meet people in the artistic community, including Lydia Hess and Marie Gélon Cameron who were both instructors at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Do you think today’s young French women would travel with such open eyes and curiosity as Madame Grandin traveled?

I think that both French women and men are, in general, very enthusiastic and open-minded travelers. They are genuinely curious about other cultures and when they vacation, always enjoy plunging into the native culture and learning as much as possible.

Do you think today’s young American women would travel to France with such open eyes and curiosity?

Similarly, I think that American travelers are open-minded but probably not as curious. We often seem to arrive in foreign places with certain stereotypes in mind and it is a challenge for us to push past those.

Madame Grandin writes much as a travel writer experiencing a new place would write. As a travel writer I find that amazing. Did she have any prior writing experience?

I agree. Though a number of French women published accounts of their visits to America during this time, Madame Grandin’s is by far the most interesting in terms of her perceptive observations and her lively style. Unfortunately, I have not found any evidence that she published anything either before or after this book. I had hoped to find some information about how she managed to secure a book contract for Impressions d’une parisienne à Chicago but have not had any luck.

Do you know what her purpose was in writing this account?

In the preface, Madame Grandin explains why she wrote this account. First, she emphasizes how important it is for French people to travel and learn about other cultures. She then acknowledges that certain constraints prevent people from taking trips so her goal was to convey information about her experiences in America to those who did not have the opportunity to travel.

Read it for yourself...you'll be glad you did.

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