“Good Americans when they die go to Paris”
Thomas Gold Appleton
Every year, I prepare a “wish list” of recently-published books which I would like to read, and send that list to my parents for them to select a Christmas gift. It’s a system that has worked well over more than two decades. This year, I shared the list with my daughters, who went to one of a handful of English language bookstores in Brussels and came up with David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” They could not have made a better choice, selecting one of my favorite authors, David McCullough, writing on one of my favorite subjects, Paris.
McCullough is truly a national treasure, the rare author who uses jargon-free prose to tell spellbinding stories about serious historical subjects. On Paris, I am close to Thomas Gold Appleton’s view, quoted above. Perhaps a little more skeptical than Appleton about an afterlife (but still wishing and hoping), I would modify his quotation to say, “When they go to Paris, good Americans think they’ve died and gone to heaven.” McCullough’s book was thus a natural for me, and he didn’t disappoint.
Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams spent formative and productive years in 18th century Paris. After that, we tend to fast forward to the 20th century, to Papa Hemmingway holding court in Montparnasse cafés and Gertrude Stein demonstrating to her compatriots that Paris was most unlike Oakland, with lots and lots of there there. Not many of us know much about Americans in Paris between Jefferson, Franklin and Adams’s time, and that of Hemmingway and Stein.
McCullough fills that gap, shedding much new light on the City of Lights. “The Greater Journey” concentrates on the period 1830-1890, showing convincingly that Paris held a similar magnetic attraction for 19th century Americans. In the early portion of the book, McCullough focuses on Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph but then an upcoming artist affectionately known as the “Lightning Man;” and James Fennimore Cooper, already a well-known novelist who somehow found inspiration to write frontier stories while in Paris. Most prominent at the end are the painters John Singer Sargent, considered the leading portrait painter of his generation; and Mary Cassatt, one of the few women associated with Impressionism. But luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Sumner, Henry James, P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb all had stints in Paris, which McCullough ably recounts.
In terms that still apply today, McCullough describes the transcending spell of Paris for 19th century Americans, “derived from light, color, and architecture” (p.46). The great appeal of Paris then, as now, was “what man built there. There was nothing stunning about its natural setting – no mountain ranges on the horizon, no dramatic coastline. . . The ‘genius of the place’ was in the arrangements of space and architecture, the perspectives of Paris” (p.206). Paris was a “continuing lesson in the enjoyment to be found in such simple, unhurried occupations as a walk in a garden or watching children at play or just sitting observing the human cavalcade” (p.44).
But if Paris was, as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, an “immense panorama of art and architecture – life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, power” (p.214), it was also home to new ideas and practices which had not yet reached American shores. Charles Sumner, who became a leading anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, observed that a small number of blacks and mulattoes in his philosophy course at the Sorbonne were “well received” by the other students. With his American perspective, this natural coexistence “seemed strange” to Sumner, prompting him to conclude that the “distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things” (p.131). McCullough terms this a “stunning revelation” for Sumner, a moment of epiphany and arguably the most important of the many new ideas which young Americans would bring back to the United States in the 19th century (p.131-32).
American artist Emma Willard was delighted to see many young women artists in Paris. Women were not confined to the periphery of the Parisian art world; they produced works “much esteemed” and bearing a high price (p.42; Willard was, however, much embarrassed by the extent to which the “female anatomy in its natural state was so conspicuously glorified on canvas and in sculpture,” a view the French found “absurdly squeamish;” p.43). Nathaniel Willis was even more delighted to find himself greeted by “only attractive women” in men’s apparel shops. “No matter what the article of trade . . .you are waited on by girls always handsome and always dressed in the height of the mode” (p.34), Willis wrote home.
In the early decades of the 19th century, moreover, Paris was the cutting-edge center of medical research and training, far ahead of the United States. Women were well integrated into the medical profession, which was largely closed to women in America. Not surprisingly, the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, studied medicine in Paris. Further, in the United States, with its puritan traditions, “most women would have preferred to die than have a physician – a man – examine their bodies” (p.115). Not so in France. A Philadelphia surgeon, Augustus Gardner, wrote that the French woman “knows nothing at all of this queasy sensibility. She has no hesitation, not only to describe, but to permit her [male] physician to see every complaint” (p.115).
McCullough does not flinch from covering one of the darkest periods in Parisian history, 1870-71, when France lost the Franco-Prussian War, at great cost to the city and the country; followed by a round of unfathomable pillage, burning and destruction, the Paris Commune uprising. American Ambassador to France Elihu Washburne wrote that both sides in the uprising committed “acts which disgrace human nature” (p.325). The “vandalism of the dark ages pales into insignificance before the monstrous crimes perpetrated in this great center of civilization in the last half of the nineteenth century” (p.324), he despondently informed the American Secretary of State.
Washburne was the only major diplomat to remain in Paris during the madness of the Franco-Prussian war and Commune uprising, steadfastly seeking peace and working to end the carnage. McCullogh credits Washburne’s copious diary entries as critical in preserving the historical record of the dark period, “substantial in quality” and written “so extremely well, with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand” (p.328-29). If Washburne’s decision to stay had resulted only in his diary, McCullough concludes, he nonetheless “would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (p.329).
Befitting our national character, American commerce and trade were instrumental in helping Paris and France rebound in the 1870s after the war and the Commune. A Paris newspaper wrote:
It is generally acknowledged that the trade of Paris is now manly sustained by American visitors who spend more money among the shopkeepers than all the rest put together . . . we only wish there were more of them, for this is about the best and most effective way in which Uncle Sam can aid the new French Republic (p.334).
One of the most interesting aspects of McCullough’s book is the extent to which the experience of young Americans in Paris sharpened their sense of what it means to be an American. The American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (thoroughly American despite the French-sounding name) wrote that his time in Paris had been a “wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” (p.423). Nathaniel Willis, when he wasn’t gazing at pretty girls in men’s apparel shops, found he could always pick out fellow American men in Paris. The distinguishing feature, he observed, was the “independent, self-possessed bearing of a man unused to look up to anyone as his superior in rank, united to the inquisitive, sensitive, communicative expression which is the index to our national character” (p.67). An irate Samuel Morse vigorously defended his friend James Fennimore Cooper when Cooper came under attack for being “boastful, even bombastic about being an American” (p.92). The Lightning Man declared his admiration for his friend’s “proud assertion of the rank of an American . . . for I know no reason why an American should not take rank, and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made . . .There can be no condescension to an American. An American gentleman is equal to any title or rank in Europe, kings and emperors not excepted”(p.93).
One side of Paris that appears missing is Franco-American romance. McCullough notes artist Mary Cassatt’s “open friendship” with her fellow impressionist painter Edgar Degas, “but apparently no more than that” (p.352). Mary Healy, the daughter of the American painter George Healey, married a French writer and professor (p..336). But there do not appear to have been many liaisons dangerouses between Americans and Parisians in the 19th century (unless, of course, the wily McCullough is holding a treasure trove of information on this tantalizing subject, which he is saving for what would surely be a blockbuster best-seller).
In “The Greater Journey,” David McCullough has produced a work about 19th century Americans’ experience in Paris that bears his trademark, rich in little-known facts and incisive observations, pieced together into a typically engaging narrative. Vive Monsieur McCullough.
Thomas H. Peebles
February 27, 2012