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The French Avant-Garde and American Writers

Les Marges

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, French literary magazines exhibited interest in Walt Whitman. This was occasioned first by the publication of Whitman’s Complete Writings (1902). Les Marges published Eugène Monfort’s piece, « A propos de Walt Whitman, » in 1909. Léon Bazalgette had just published a translation in French of Leaves of Grass.

First page of Monfort's article, « A propos de Walt Whitman »

L’Ane d’or

A special number on Whitman, including a self-portrait, was published by L’Ane d’or , 5 (February-March 1926). The issue featured previously unpublished materials, both in English and in translation. In 1926 Emory Holloway had published The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Simultaneously, a committee had been formed in New York City to foster interest in Whitman. In Paris, a similar committee was also formed to bring to Whitman “the recognition he deserves.”

« Tête de fumeur », L'Ane d'or , p.51

Henry Miller

Henry Miller (1891-1980) lived in France as an expatriate from 1930 to 1940. Tropic of Cancer, his controversial novel of the life of an American expatriate in Paris, was published by the Obelisk Press in Paris in 1934. Blaise Cendrars published a piece on the novel in Orbes in 1935 in which he said, «un écrivain américain nous est né: Henry Miller qui vient d’écrire son premier livre à Paris. Livre royal, livre atroce, exactement le genre de livre que j’aime le plus.»

Éditions Denoël also published an elegant French translation of an appreciative essay, Blaise Cendrars, by Henry Miller in 1951. The portrait of Cendrars is by Rièra.

Miller’s “Tribute to Blaise Cendrars,” published in The Wisdom of the Heart (New Directions, 1941) contains only the first part of the text published in French in 1951. In turn, the original version of the Miller essay appeared in the Tien Hsia Monthly in Shanghai.

Henry Miller, "Tribute to Blaise Cendrars."

Cahiers des saisons

Henry Miller influenced the writers of the Beat Generation in whom the French were also interested. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), who achieved initial fame with On the Road (1957), spent time in Mexico, evident in the poems in Mexico City Blues (1959). The first French translation of Kerouac, « Un Américain au Mexique, » appeared in Cahiers des saisons in the summer of 1959.

The second translation of Kerouac to appear in France was of his poem « Rimbaud » in Cahiers des saisons (Autumn 1962). In 1956, Henry Miller had published The Time of the Assassins, a book on Rimbaud. Kerouac, of French Canadian descent, went to France in search of his “roots” and subsequently published Satori in Paris in 1966. Coincidentally, the French translation of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech of 1950 also was published in the same 1962 issue of Cahiers that contained Kerouac’s « Rimbaud. » Faulkner had received considerable attention in France after Jean-Paul Sartre had written about The Sound and the Fury.

Jack Kerouac, « Rimbaud, » 1962.