- 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
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
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
"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
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.