Almost everywhere, after the war, one heard the intellectual life of America unfavorably compared with that of Europe. The critics often called for a great American novel or opera; they were doggedly enthusiastic, like cheer leaders urging Princeton to carry the ball over the line; but at heart they felt that Princeton was beaten, the game was in the bag for Oxford and the Sorbonne; at heart they were not convinced that even the subject matter of a great novel could be supplied by this country. American themes--so the older critics felt--were lacking in dignity. Art and ideas were products manufactured under a European patent; all we could furnish toward them was raw talent destined usually to be wasted. Everywhere, in every department of cultural life, Europe offered the models to imitate--in painting, composing, philosophy, folk music, folk drinking, the drama, sex, politics, national consciousness--indeed, some doubted that this country was even a nation; it had no traditions except the fatal tradition of the pioneer. As for our contemporary literature, thousands were willing to echo Van Wyck Brooks when he said that in comparison with the literature of any European country, "it is indeed one long list of spiritual casualties. For it is not that the talent is wanting, but that somehow this talent falls to fulfill itself."
Ten years later this feeling had gone and even its memory was fading. American intellectuals still complained, but their enemy was no longer "civilization in the United States"; it was "our business civilization," it was efficiency, standardization, mass production, the machine--it was something that dominated our nation more than others, but affected the others also. Germany had yielded to it, Britain was yielding, even France was being poisoned--it was no use fleeing to London or Paris, though perhaps there was a secure village in the South of France, perhaps there was safety in Majorca. . . . People still said in 1930 that it was impossible to live in the United States, but not that it was impossible to write or paint there. Comparisons with European literature continued to be drawn, but not so often or so unfavorably. Ten years after the first migration to Montparnasse, I met a talented, rather naive young woman just returned from London, where she had published her first novel. Yes, it had been fairly successful--it was good enough for the English, she said, but she didn't want to publish it over here until she had time to rewrite it completely; it wasn't good enough for New York. I knew that she did not intend to be smart; she was a simple person trying to state her impressions and those of the circle in which she moved.
France was the birthplace of our creed. It was in France that poets had labored for days over a single stanza, while bailiffs hammered at the door; in France that novelists like Gourmont had lived as anchorites, while imagining seductions more golden and mistresses more harmoniously yielding than life could ever reproduce; in France that Flaubert had described "the quant mania of passing one's life wearing oneself out over words," and had transformed the mania into a religion. Everything admirable in literature began in France, was developed in France; and though we knew that the great French writers quarreled among themselves, Parnassians giving way to Decadents, who gave to Symbolists, who in turn were giving way to the new school, whatever it was, that would soon reign in Paris--though none achieved perfection, we were eager to admire them all. And this, precisely, was the privilege we should not be granted.