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LSU Scholar Gerald Kennedy Part of Documentary Exploring the Role of Paris in the Evolution of Modern Art

Kennedy, acclaimed literary scholar and English professor, discusses what Paris meant as a place during formative years of modernism

Premieres on LPB on Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time

Gerald Kennedy and Perry Miller Adato at the "Paris, the Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern" screening at the Alliance Francaise in New York City on Dec. 6.

More than just a city, Paris serves as the embodiment of art, an epicenter of class and a richness of culture found nowhere else in the world. Almost universally evocative, it serves as a life's goal for many, a dream vacation or business destination for those wanting to have a piece of the avant-garde. But few admirers stop to ponder how Paris became such a creative hub, or the role it played in the development of modern literature. To answer that question, LSU English Professor Gerald Kennedy appears in an upcoming documentary by Perry Miller Adato. Called "Paris, the Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern," it premieres on Dec. 15 on LBP (or your local PBS station) at 8 p.m.

"Working with Perry Miller Adato was an absolute joy. Not only is she a tremendously talented director, but she is also extremely gracious," said Kennedy. "She has a wonderful way of bringing people together, which is essential for such a large, complicated undertaking. It was a very collaborative project, and its merit was recognized in the form of an exceptionally large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities."

Kennedy, the William A. Read Professor of English Literature in LSU's Department of English, was brought into the documentary by Adato, who had read his book "Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing and the American Identity," which focuses on the lives and works of American expatriate authors Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Djuna Barnes, and how Paris influenced their literary careers. His expertise in this area made him a natural choice for the film.

Ernest Hemingway's 1923 passport
Credit: Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

"In 2005, I went to New York for an amazing planning meeting at WNET that included all the scholars and historians tapped to be a part of the narrative," said Kennedy. "It was an extraordinary team – a little intimidating, but the conversation was exciting. I really felt that the essence of early Paris would be thoroughly represented by such a talented interdisciplinary group. After that first meeting, we critiqued two later versions of Perry's film script."

Kennedy is an expert in early American literature, especially that of expatriate authors Hemingway and Stein, who lived in Paris in the early 20th century. He believes that Paris as a place played a tremendous role in the transformation of these writers from virtual nonentities into literary giants.

"It's hard to talk about the appeal of Paris without talking about the idea of place," Kennedy said during the documentary. "We absorb places into our lives, into our identities. We dream about places; they become part of our unconscious. And I think Paris offered a kind of rich plentitude, particularly to Americans, because it was so different from any place in the United States."

Kennedy's interviews take place in the second half of the two-hour documentary in a segment on the literary expatriates of 1905-1930. In the early years, Hemingway and Stein developed a deep friendship based upon mutual respect. Hemingway in particular grew as a writer while working as a Paris correspondent for the Toronto Star.

"Although Hemingway's Parisian mentors urged him to get away from journalism, Hemingway learned a great deal from his work in the field as a journalist … In order to save money [wiring stories overseas], he would eliminate words that could easily be inferred by the reader at the other end of the wire," said Kennedy. "In this process, Hemingway learned something about the power of omission, discovering that less is more."

Gertrude Stein sits in her Left Bank apartment in Paris, beneath paintings by Braque and Picasso, two of her closest friends in the Paris art community. Picasso's 1906 portrait of Stein dominates the wall to her left.
(c) Bettmen/Corbis

Though in later years the two dynamic authors severed their friendship over a writing conflict, their interactions in Paris were a driving influence in the development of the modern literary style, a primary focus of a large portion of the documentary. Both Stein and Hemingway witnessed the revolution in painting unfolding in Paris and then experimented with the creative juxtaposition of images as well as the remaking of literary language.

As a whole, the film takes the viewer through a bevy of other artistic outlets: dance, painting, music, sculpture and more. Featuring archival footage of such artists as Joan Miro, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and many more, it attempts to bring a tangible Parisian avant-garde experience to those watching.

"It was a genuine pleasure to be involved in this documentary, which I think does a tremendous job of explaining the link between the Parisian art scene of the early 1900s and the current state of modern art and literature," said Kennedy. "I have been in a few other documentaries, one of them for the A&E Biography series, but nothing even remotely as brilliant as this film. I hope it wins Perry another Emmy."

Kennedy and his wife Sarah attended a screening and reception honoring Adato at the Alliance Francaise in New York City on Dec. 6.

"Paris: The Luminous Years" is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET.ORG, the Eloquent Image LLC, INA and ARTE France and in association with YLE Teema. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundations, the Florence Gould Foundation, Brooke and Daniel Neidich, Rosalind P. Walter, the Murray L. and Belle C. Nathan Fund, the Paul W. Zuccaire Foundation and the Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation.