David McCullough is best-known for his weighty biographies of Truman and John Adams. 1776 was downright fluffy by comparison! This was an enjoyable departure from his usual topics and my main complaint was that I found myself wanting more.
McCullough skips over some of the most famous Americans in Paris, like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and starts in 1830, when James Fenimore Cooper (of Last of the Mohicans fame) and Samuel Morse went to Paris to absorb the culture and cultivate their artistic sides. I hadn’t realized (or more likely, had forgotten) that Morse was an accomplished painter before he went on to invent the telegraph.
I mean seriously, what kind of talent just “dabbles” in epic paintings and then decides to do a bit of tinkering that changes communications forever?
In those early days, the voyage on a sailing ship was long and hazardous, and relatively few Americans went to Paris. Most that did were interesting in studying art or medicine. There is a fascinating chapter on the study of medicine in Paris, which was the most advanced in the world at that time. Warning: don’t eat lunch while reading about these “state-of-the-art” operating theaters. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. studied there and came back to eventually become dean of the Harvard Medical School.
Once steamships and the railroad became popular, thousands of Americans swarmed to Paris and McCullough’s focus widens considerably. It seems that for a time, Paris itself takes center stage. As a fan of that lovely city, I didn’t mind one bit. Pretty soon, it seemed like anyone who was anyone was traveling to Paris, taking in the sights, or making their marks. Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, P.T. Barnum (with Tom Thumb) and George Catlin with a troop of Iowa Indians in full regalia, all make their appearances.
Soon, McCullough zeroes in again, this time on American ambassador Elihu Washburne. Through his letters, we get a first-person account of the Siege of Paris (Franco-Prussian War) and the subsequent horrific Paris Commune. Even though I’ve read about these events in history books, this account was far more compelling and memorable.
Even though the entire city was laid low in the aftermath of the Commune, Paris never stays down for long, and Americans couldn’t stay away. Some of the most prominent to appear in the later part of the century were painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. The final focus is on American sculptor August Saint-Gaudens, who did all of the work on the massive bronze statue of Admiral Farragut in Paris, as well as the casting of the mounted Sherman who stands on the edge of Central Park.
While McCullough seems to favor the visual artists in his choices of focus, he does give us a very good idea of how important Paris was to all sorts of influential Americans. It was interesting to see how many were able to absorb and enjoy the city’s many delights, all while remaining relentlessly patriotic and even more convinced of their “Americanism.”
I really don’t have any significant criticisms- I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would have liked to read more about Henry James’ time in Paris (The Ambassadors and The American are among my favorites), and I was disappointed that the book ended with the end of the 19th century. I’d love to read more about Americans in Paris in the 1920’s. I’ll see what I can find and put it on my list!