The Confessions of a Harvard Man: A Journey through Literary Bohemia Paris & New York in the 20s & 30s; The Street I Know, Revisited


423 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-920348-33-5





Reviewed by Ross Willmot

Ross Willmot is Executive Director of the Ontario Association for
Continuing Education.


Any reader expecting a series of exposés, as indicated by the new title of these oldish memoirs, will be disappointed. However, editor Hugh Ford, who himself has written about literary Paris between the wars, has hereby resurrected the name-dropping references by ex-patriate Stearns to such literary companions as Maugham, Gertrude Stein, Santayana, Lewis, Mumford, Sherwood Anderson, H.L. Mencken, and many other greats. He has added a useful index as well as photographs of these luminaries and of New York’s Greenwich Village, where Stearns started his career as a journalist critic, and Montparnasse in Paris, where he became the apotheosis of the lost generation.

Stearns here tells about his work with such prestigious publications as The Dial, which he edited and wherein he fulminated about the decay of U.S. culture in the 1920s. He coddled his personal abhorrence of his own country to the point where he exiled himself in public to Paris, which he idolized. Then Stearns gives frank details about his fall from grace as a cultural Moses. The section he includes from Kay Boyle’s Monday Night gives a perceptive picture of a drunken, disreputable-looking Stearns at his favorite bar holding forth on various subjects, including picking winners at horse races, that he was then writing about. Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and fellow writers were also moved by Stearns’s degradation to describe him in their writings.

Here is the author’s account of how he persuaded thirty intellectuals to contribute articles to his Civilization in the United States, completed just before he sailed for Paris in 1921. His native country was “a vast cultural wasteland, inimical to the artist, repressive, hypocritical, restrictive.” The death in childbirth of Stearns’s wife, who had persuaded him to write about the collapse of liberalism in Liberalism in America (1919), and the loss of his new son to her parents, were a major reason for his emigration, Day says in his introduction.

Stearns presents many unpleasant sides to his personality in abandoning his mother, in panhandling his friends (including women who supported him), in giving way to dipsomania. Then he recanted all he had once said in defense of exile and asserted that the “real world” was the United States. In 1932 he returned to New York, his passage paid for by charity and friends. In the last part of his autobiography, he describes his uphill fight back to critical recognition. Beyond the time frame of this book were his two reappraisals of the United States, Rediscovering America (1934) and America, a Reappraisal (1937), a complete volte-face from his earlier symposium, and America Now: An Enquiry into Civilization in the United States (1938). Characteristically, perhaps, he made a good marriage with a cultivated and wealthy divorcee who supported him in his later literary endeavors.


Stearns, Harold, “The Confessions of a Harvard Man: A Journey through Literary Bohemia Paris & New York in the 20s & 30s; The Street I Know, Revisited,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024,