By AUDREY FISCHER
When historian David McCullough announced his intention to write a book about Americans in Paris, the assumption was his subjects would be Thomas Jefferson, John Adams or Benjamin Franklin.
After all, McCullough has received the Pulitzer Prize for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman.
But this time his interest was not in the founders or the presidents. Nor was he interested in revisiting the well-documented experience of the “lost generation”—expatriate writers like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway who flocked to Paris after World War I.
“The ‘lost generation’ was never lost. They were in Paris,” quipped McCullough.
Instead, McCullough wanted to explore less well-charted territory—Americans who went to Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, not, as he observed, “to make a social splash but with the ambition to excel.”
“The old world was the new world to them,” said McCullough.
McCullough discussed his latest work, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” at the Library of Congress on June 1. The private event, sponsored by America’s Trust, with support from the Marshall Coyne Foundation, was attended by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. The event was hosted by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who called McCullough, “the chronicler of people in America.”
“My own path and work began at the Library of Congress 50 years ago this year,” recalled McCullough. “I am more indebted to this great institution than I can say. It is the mother church of the library system in America.”
By his own admission, the historian spent “the best four years” of his professional life chronicling the “brave and ambitious Americans with talent who set off for Paris—the greatest center of medicine, painting, sculpture and architecture in the world.”
Some, like authors James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were already famous in America. But others, like painters George P.A. Healy, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens would hone their craft in Paris and become renown in their field.
Medical students Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mary Putnam, and physician Elizabeth Blackwell would train in what was then the medical capital of the world. Unlike puritanical American physicians, Parisian practitioners had access to cadavers and could examine members of the opposite sex. McCullough noted that these social factors put American medicine woefully behind the times.
Future statesman Charles Sumner would learn much from his eclectic education at the Sorbonne. But perhaps his greatest lesson would come from his personal observations of how black students were “well received” by their fellow classmates. His revelation that “the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things” would, in time, lead him to become a staunch abolitionist and one of the most powerful voices on the subject in Congress.
Samuel F.B. Morse came to Paris to paint his masterpiece. His depiction of the House of Representatives hangs in the halls of Congress today. But he would also befriend Louis Daguerre and bring the invention of the daguerreotype to America, where the field of photography was in its infancy. Other observations made in Paris would lead to his invention of the telegraph.
But life in Paris during the 19th century was not without its perils. The cholera epidemic of 1832 left 18,000 dead in the city in period of six months. And the flight of American visitors from the bloody Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in the fall of Paris on Jan. 28, 1871, reduced the American colony in Paris to 150—from a record 4,500 the previous summer, in addition to some 8,000 American tourists.
The only statesman to remain was Elihu Washburne, U.S. minister to France, who felt it was his duty to remain at his post “as long as there are Americans here.”
Washburne represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1853 until his brief appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant to the position of secretary of state in March 1869. Washburne withdrew 12 days later due to a brief illness but subsequently accepted the assignment in Paris, where he was influential in negotiating the armistice for the Franco-Prussian War.
Well-known and highly regarded in his day—even touted as a presidential candidate—Washburne has fallen into relative obscurity.
“If it does nothing else, I hope my book brings this man, too long unknown, to the fore,” said McCullough.
With the assistance of the Manuscript Division’s Jeff Flannery, McCullough’s longtime researcher Mike Hill made a thrilling discovery at the Library of Congress. Mixed in with Washburne’s correspondence were letterpress copies of the diplomat’s diary entries. Washburne had kept a detailed diary of his assignment abroad, including the 1870 Siege of Paris. The original diary was later located in Washburne’s ancestral home in his native Livermore, Maine.
McCullough also hopes his book will impress upon Americans how “the history of France, the impact of its culture, has affected our history, our story, us.” He cited Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the city of Washington, the gift of the Statue of Liberty, names of U.S. cities and rivers as just a few examples, in addition to French cuffs, French perfume and french fries.
McCullough is also passionate about passing our history on to future generations.
In conclusion, he said, “We have a big job of sustaining the story of how we began and who we are. It is up to all of us to pass it on to our children and grandchildren. Take them to historic sites. Show them the places you love. And incorporate theater, music, art and architecture into the teaching of history.”
He added, “Never forget how blessed we are to have libraries—free to the people—in which we can explore to our hearts content a whole realm of ideas. It is an American way of life we should never take for granted.”