Venita Datta is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Wellesley College. An alumna of NYU’s Institute of French Studies, she is specialist of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French cultural and intellectual history. Vinni Datta is interested in the relationship of politics and culture, particularly in the formation of national identity. She is the author of Heroes and legends of Fin-de-Siècle France: Gender, Politics and National Identity (2011) and Birth of a National Icon: The Literary Avant-Garde and the Origins of the Intellectual in France (1999).
In Figures of Modernity: The United States in the French National Imagination, 1880-1914, a book manuscript in progress, Venita Datta focuses on four different figures of modernity: the inventor-entrepreneur (Edison and Eiffel), who represented the belief in the power of science and technology; the reporter (Nellie Bly and Gaston Leroux), and the celebrity politician (General Georges Boulanger and Theodore Roosevelt), both of whom embodied the new role of mass democracy and culture, and finally, the explorer (William F. Cody known as Buffalo Bill and the Marquis de Morès), whose adventures illustrated the potential of technology to open up global travel and promised the domination of nature by humankind. In studying these key figures, I examine the juxtaposition between France’s role as the center of modernity and the simultaneous critique of modernity as a foreign, specifically, an American import, during the fin de siècle. How did the French view various aspects of modernity—cultural, social, and technological–and what role did the image and reality of the United States play in French attitudes toward modernity? Such an equivocal view, both of modernity—and of the United States—points to a rather more complex relationship between France and the United States than a linear narrative limited to describing the rise of the latter and the concomitant decline of the former would suggest.