Before the scene shifts to Spain, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has some bits about Paris and Mencken, two favorites of mine in the pantheons of cities and writers. Hemingway’s protagonist, Jacob Barnes, takes a cab in Paris (circa 1925), thinks about Mencken’s dislike of Paris, and soon after meets a friend at a café, where they discuss Mencken.
The river looked nice. It was always pleasant crossing bridges in Paris.
The taxi rounded the statue of the inventor of the semaphore engaged in doing same, and turned up the Boulevard Raspail, and I sat back to let that part of the ride pass. The Boulevard Raspail always made dull riding. It was like a certain stretch on the P.L.M. between Fontainebleau and Montereau that always made me feel bored and dead and dull until it was over. I suppose it is some association of ideas that makes those dead places in a journey. There are other streets in Paris as ugly as the Boulevard Raspail. It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it. Perhaps I had read something about it once. That was the way Robert Cohn was about all of Paris. I wondered where Cohn got that incapacity to enjoy Paris. Possibly from Mencken. Mencken hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.
Here, a page later, is where Jake gets out of the cab, enters a café and discusses Mencken with his friend Harvey Stone:
“Do you know Mencken, Harvey?”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s all right. He says some pretty funny things. Last time I had dinner with him we talked about Hoffenheimer. ‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘he’s a garter-snapper’ That’s not bad.”
“That’s not bad?”
“He’s through now,” Harvey went on. “He’s written about all the things he knows, and now he’s on all the things he doesn’t know.”
“I guess he’s all right,” I said. “I just can’t read him.”
“Oh, nobody reads him now,” Harvey said, “except the people that used to read the Alexander Hamilton Institute.”
“Well,” I said, “that was a good thing, too.”
The Alexander Hamilton Institute was a business school in New York City founded in 1909 and dissolved circa 1980. What is meant by “reading” it I have no idea. Nor do I know who Hoffenheimer is. Maybe I should have just left that part of this post out. For that matter, maybe the part where Hemingway (who has never thrilled me) deplores Paris should also have been left on the cutting-room floor. Still, it does contain some good backhanded praise for Paris, a city that’s thrilled me since long before I started bloviating about buildings.
By the way, the Boulevard Raspail was named in honor of François-Vincent Raspail (1794–1878), French chemist, physician and politician. Hemingway’s character Jacob is bored by it, but according to Wikipedia, the boulevard was “heavily criticized by Le Corbusier in Toward an Architecture.” Anything Corbu disliked must have been amiable in the extreme. It may be of interest in light of current French politics that another Raspail, the writer Jean Raspail, wrote a novel called Camp of the Saints, published in 1973, about an invasion of France by Third World refugees. It returned to the bestseller lists in 2011.
The P.L.M. was a French railway that linked Paris to the Côte d’Azur. A “garter-snapper” was a womanizer. “Hoffenheimer” may be an erroneous or disguised reference to the writer Joseph Hergesheimer, a friend of Mencken’s who, I would think, is more likely to have been accurately characterized as a womanizer than Mencken, who decidedly was not (though his In Defense of Women is, in fact, a defense of women). Mencken did not dislike women but was married only briefly, to Sara Haardt, who died five years after they were hitched. It may be safe to say that Mencken was more fond of words than women. When Hergesheimer complained about the decline in his literary popularity, Mencken is said to have replied, “I don’t know, Joe. I’ll always enjoy watching you swing from tree to tree.”