Monday, December 14, 2015

Americans in Paris

When I think of American intellectuals in Paris, I think of writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein between the world wars. Yet the appeal of Paris to intelligent, creative Americans began long before that, as David McCullough tells us in his 2011 book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. He might have gone back to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, but instead McCullough focuses on the period from the late 1830s to about 1900 when Americans in large numbers flocked to Paris, some remaining for years.

These Americans included writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote some of his best novels in Paris, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James, but they also included many who traveled to Paris to study art (John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mary Cassatt among them) or medicine (such as Elizabeth  Blackwell, America's first female doctor, and Mason Warren). A few went to Paris to study one thing, then became famous for doing something else. Samuel F.B. Morse was there to study art, then invented the telegraph. Oliver Wendell Holmes went to Paris as a medical student but made his reputation in literature.

A few notable Americans in Paris didn't quite fit the usual mold. These included such people as P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, White Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody.

McCullough's book proves to be something of a who's who of important Americans of the 19th century, yet at the same time it becomes a history of 19th century Paris from the perspective of those American visitors. These were trying times for Parisians, with a siege by a Prussian army, the brutal Paris Commune and Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat. Americans were there to witness it all, as well as the world's fairs and the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

McCullough writes readable history, which is why his books become bestsellers. I'm never disappointed with his books, and The Greater Journey certainly does not disappoint.

No comments:

Post a Comment