Instructor: Professor Susan Whitney

This seminar explores cultural, social, and political life in Paris during the 1920s, a decade often known as the Jazz Age. In the years following the First World War, Paris was one of the world’s most famous and alluring cities, drawing tourists, immigrants, artists, writers and young people from across Europe and North America. A city of neighborhoods, 1920s Paris was home not just to Parisians, but to American writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Suzanne Valadon, and African American artists, jazz musicians, and performers (including Josephine Baker), who found a freedom from racism that eluded them in the United States.  As the capital of France and its empire, Paris was also the centre of French political life and a showcase for France’s international and imperial ambitions. The site of numerous world’s fairs (including that for which the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889) and Europe’s last big colonial exhibition, Paris was a city that mixed tradition with modernity, continuity with revolutionary cultural and political impulses, and architectural elegance with antiquated housing and urban poverty.  It was a city and urban space for which politicians, architects, artists, writers, and tourists had plans and dreams – and nostalgia too.

Taking as its starting point the themes suggested above, this course gives students an introduction to the major topics and themes that have absorbed historians writing about Paris in the early twentieth century. Our weekly seminar meetings will be devoted to discussing assigned materials, especially readings by historians and contemporaries and also assorted film clips from the period accessible through e-reserves. Because the relationship Paris and its inhabitants had to modernity will be a central theme, we will begin by considering the transformation of Paris into a modern city in the mid-nineteenth century and the emergence of new forms of mass culture and leisure in the late 19th century. Subsequent topics to be explored include: the impact of the First World War on the capital, daily life in the 1920s city, the arrival of jazz to France, the rise of the “Red Belt” and new forms of revolutionary politics, the New Woman and 1920s mass culture, high culture and the 1925 Art Deco exhibition, race and African Americans in the City of Light, and the 1931 Colonial Exhibition.  This giant world’s fair-like event on the outskirts of Paris allowed tens of millions of visitors to tour what was, in essence, a giant colonial theme park.  Throughout the course, we will be particularly attentive to how issues related to race, gender, nationality, religion, and empire played themselves out within the city’s confines and in the city’s cultural productions.

At this point, the precise nature of course assignments has not yet been finalized.  Students will, however, be evaluated on their weekly seminar participation, on short critical reading responses, on an oral presentation, and on a 18-20 page research paper.  This paper will allow students to explore a topic of their own interest in greater detail.

Students from outside the History Department are welcome. For more information, please contact Professor Whitney at