Cafe society

Literary research comes at Parisienne prices

by Mary Jane Dunlap
 Catherine Anne Meissner, a KU graduate student from Rochester, Minn., is studying literary change in Paris from 1875 to 1930 by focusing on the cafes that attracted the intellectual set. Photo by Kelly Heese/University Relations
Researching the literary cafes of Paris sounds like an escargot and eclair graduate assignment.

"Not quite," says Catherine Anne Meissner, a KU graduate student from Rochester, Minn., who is studying literary change in Paris from 1875 to 1930 by focusing on the cafes that attracted the intellectual set.

Last summer Meissner found that in cafes where Sartre or Hemingway once held court, her graduate teaching assistant earnings allowed her to order a cup of coffee, at best, at 33 francs--or $6--per cup.

Meissner will conclude her research this summer in Paris with a financial boost from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is the first recipient of the Peter Gilles Springer Fellowship for Study in France established by Phyllis Springer, a 1956 KU history graduate, in memory of her son who died suddenly in Paris in 1996.

The $1,000 fellowship funded through the KU Endowment Association will help with research expenses for Meissner's study of literary cafes. She has long-range goal of publishing a book on the literary cafes.

"I'm fascinated with why do we go to cafes? Why do humans want to congregate in places like cafes to talk and to write? Why write in a cafe instead of your home?" Meissner says.
Meissner found that many of the existing cafes make impressive use of windows and grand chandeliers to create a spacious, inviting atmosphere. Paris apartments in the 1800s were cramped, dark and unheated, so Meissner thinks that "people could be better hosts if they took friends to a cafe where there was light and heat--and a place to write."

For her project examining literary change in Paris, Meissner narrowed her focus to French Symbolist poets from 1875 to 1930, specifically Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlain and Paul Gaultier.

The cafes were incubators for new thought and creativity, Meissner says. They attracted poets, artists, writers and intellectuals who moved their gathering spots over the years from one cafe to another about the city--partly to escape the celebrity status that evolved for many such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway.

Last summer, to save on transportation costs within Paris, Meissner estimates she hiked about seven miles daily for two and a half weeks to track down 20 cafes of the 1800s, the oldest of which opened in 1686. She quickly learned cafe patrons do not sit down when ordering only coffee--the price goes up for seated customers.

Meissner took photographs, collected memorabilia offered by waiters and began searching out documents, including old menus, in the archives of Paris. Several cafes have been lost--renovated as clothing stores, banks, bookstores or sex shops, Meissner says.

"Some cafes are still there and have the same decor. Of course they don't serve absinthe," the wormwood liquor that eroded many an artist's brain before it was outlawed. Artists of the 1800s thought the drink boosted their creativity, Meissner said.

This summer Meissner will spend more time in the national archives. One archival find last year was two boxes of menus from the cafes of the 1800s. Meissner, who has compiled an extensive bibliography on the poets, their times and the cafes, had to return to the U.S. before completing her research.

Meissner plans to meet with Mrs. Springer, a former Lawrence resident who has lived and worked in Paris as a journalist since April 1959. The Peter Gilles Springer fellowship is for graduate students in French, political science and history.

Meissner will complete a master's degree in education to teach French in May 2001. She earned a bachelor's degree in French from KU in 1996. Meissner's extracurricular activities include being a member of KU's bowling team. She is married to Chris Meissner who is working on a Ph.D. in theatre and film at KU.

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April 14, 2000
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