Why is Paris so beautiful? Such a lovely and romantic walking city? Those of us lucky enough to live here know that beyond the romantic tourist dream there is a reality, and that is one of an exquisitely - and very carefully - planned city. Baron Haussmann traditionally receives all the credit, but in fact crucial decisions were made centuries earlier. Joan DeJean delves into the fascinating tale of the creation of Paris in her acclaimed new book, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.
Laurel Zuckerman: How did you become a writer? Where did you learn your craft?
Joan DeJean: I’m an academic, so I’ve always done research with the goal of publishing it. You’re never really trained in either research or writing, so the outcome can be a bit hit or miss. Many academics don’t really enjoy this part of the job, but I always have. I feel that teaching and research/writing work beautifully together. I rarely teach the subjects I am working on for my book projects (though I did offer a course on Paris in the 17th century on several occasions), but somehow ideas filter back and forth.
My best ‘training’ as a writer came from colleagues and friends who were generous enough to take the time to tear my writing apart, as well as from a few great copyeditors (a disappearing art!) who were able to explain clearly why it was that they objected to certain things about my writing and to make a case for doing things differently.
What is the biggest challenge for you in writing non-fiction?
I write a particular kind of non-fiction. I’m trying to tell stories that have been neglected and that I feel deserve to be known. These stories fall into two distinct categories.
First, there were unknown sides of famous figures. In How Paris Became Paris, for example, I wanted to right the record concerning Louis XIV. He is always described as the monarch who privileged Versailles over Paris and thus neglected the French capital. However, for over two decades before the court moved to Versailles, Louis XIV was a Parisian ruler. Contemporaries described him walking the streets of his capital, trying to gauge first-hand both what needed to be done and the impact of public works already in place. Twenty years is a long time for a king, and particularly for someone as energetic and decisive as Louis XIV. In those two decades, the Sun King managed to transform Paris – and to redefine the very notion of a city.
Then, there were stories of a very different kind – the stories of obscure individuals who accomplished extraordinary things: for instance, the architects who invented the concept of a boulevard, or the real-estate speculator who almost single-handedly developed the major part of what are today the first, second, sixth, and seventh arrondissements of Paris. In cases such as these, I feel a very real responsibility to help their stories come alive by finding the kind of detail that might stick in a reader’s mind. That may be the biggest challenge in writing my brand of non-fiction.
How Paris Became Paris is extremely detailed. How did you research? What sources impressed you most or were most authoritative and evocative?
Years of research (5? 6?) went into How Paris Became Paris. I worked most often in Paris’ Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (the BHVP) and in various departments of the Musée Carnavalet and in other libraries in Paris as well. So many sources proved essential that it’s hard to single out any particular kind of document. In the long run, perhaps the most important documents were the many, many edicts published to dictate urban policy in Paris – everything from the correct dimensions for a street to the fines imposed on owners of carriages who allowed their horses to nibble the leaves of newly planted trees. This kind of official bureaucratic document is on the surface extremely dry. They are nonetheless full of telling details and are often the authoritative source for information on daily life in 17th-century Paris. I spent many days reading through boxes of these decrees, unknotting strings around them that often had not been untied in decades – if not longer. One day when I was walking home from the library, I ran into an acquaintance. My hands were so dirty that I couldn’t offer to shake his hand! That day, I was bothered by the dirt, but normally when I returned home, I actually enjoyed the process of washing it off. To research a book like How Paris Became Paris properly, you have to sift through piles and piles of 17th-century material of various kinds. The residue on my hands at the end of a day of research was truly the dust of history.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
No doubt about it: the decision made in 1669 to tear down the fortifications that had surrounded Paris for centuries and to replace them with an immense and beautiful walkway and thoroughfare. This became the original boulevard and the model for all the grand parkways so important to many 19th-century cities all over the world. In How Paris Became Paris, I use 17th-century maps to retrace the building of the first boulevard.
Why did other cities NOT become Paris? (Or did they, only to be destroyed?)
That’s a complicated question and one I address in many sections of the book. The only possible short answer is this: timing, luck, enlightened leadership. London, for example, would almost certainly have begun to reinvent itself sooner had it not been held back in the 1660s first by the Plague and then by the Great Fire.
I read How Paris Became Paris while in Scottsdale, AZ, a town that is (I think) making terrible development mistakes. I found myself wishing that every member of the city council could receive a copy of your book. What wisdom might be found in how Paris became Paris for modern day city planners and developers?
All the decisions crucial to the modernization of Paris in the 17th century were made with the city’s inhabitants in mind – both to improve conditions for the business community and to enhance the daily lives of all Parisians. This is what made the redesign of the city so successful and such a model for cities to come. On many occasions in How Paris Became Paris, I quote both Henri IV and Louis XIV to show the reasoning and the care that inspired their urban planning.
You have written many books about France, mostly in social or cultural history. What fascinates you about France?
I grew up in a French family, in a largely French-speaking community in Louisiana. My French heritage was all around me. This explains why I chose to become a specialist of 17th- and 18th-century France. Those are the centuries that were the foundation for the world in which I grew up.
Have you ever been tempted to exploit your deep knowledge of Paris in another genre, like a murder mystery?
I can’t imagine ever writing fiction. I can’t do dialogue, for a start! Besides, I enjoy most the many ways in which history never ceases to amaze me. I couldn’t invent better stories!
What books are on your night table now?
Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, Rex Stout’s The Red Box, a huge P.G. Wodehouse anthology.
What books about Paris are your personal favorites?
I learned most from Jean-Pierre Babelon’s many publications on Parisian architecture, from Hilary Ballon’s pioneering work on Henri IV’s Paris, from Maurice Dumolin’s topographical studies of the city, and last but certainly not least, from Pierre Lavedan’s illuminating studies of Parisian urban planning.
What are you working on?
I’m working on a family history, that of a family of Parisian craftsmen in the late 17th and the early 18th centuries. It’s so complicated that I can’t yet describe it well. Only two things are absolutely clear. 1. all the research involves archival material – handwriting from the period. Much of that is so difficult to transcribe that the work will be much harder and slower than the research I have done for my most recent books. 2. I’m already so attached to some family members that, despite the difficulty of the work, nothing could make me give up on this project. I feel morally obligated to tell this story.
Joan DeJean is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of ten books on French literature, history, and material culture, including most recently How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. She lives in Philadelphia and, when in Paris, on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.
Praise for How Paris Became Paris
"Dejean obviously knows and loves Paris, and she provides coherent history that effectively explains the evolution of a city built by a few prescient men." *--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)*
Although 19th-century Baron Haussmann often receives credit for Paris's iconic features, this witty and engaging work shows that it was the 17th-century Bourbon monarchs who first transformed Paris into the prototype of the modern city that would inspire the world... With panache and examples from primary sources, guidebooks, maps, and paintings, she illustrates how Paris changed people's conception of a city's potential." *--Publishers Weekly*