Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Note: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

David McCullough, author and historian, is a household name. My dad has read most if not all of his works and my husband has likewise taken an interest in several of his books. We’ve amassed quite a collection, but I’ve not taken the plunge to read one. I knew he was widely acclaimed as an excellent storyteller, but his subjects had not been of interest to me until his most recent work.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris examines the lives of Americans who visited or lived in Paris, France between the years of 1830 and 1900. Their reasons for going are as varied as their stories. There are the expected artists and sculptors, but McCullough also highlights the contributions of Americans in Paris to medicine. Then considered a “center” of arts, science and advancement, Paris hosted dozens of American students to medicinal advancements and skills that were then brought back to the United States. There are stories of inventors, abolitionists, authors, feminists and statesmen deftly woven into the history of a vibrant, tumultuous city.

The strong love of learning that these Americans brought with them to Paris is rarely seen today on a whole. Artists devoting hours to copying paintings in the Louvre or sculptors dedicating their entire lives to monumental works and acclaim; doctoral students being allowed to explore the female anatomy on cadavers to better understand women’s medicine and working in conditions that, upon fine description, led me to nearly vomit. Students came as one thing and left their mark in history as another – an art student turned abolitionist, another becoming an inventor.

The letters and journals of these people tell the story of the end of the French monarchy, the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, Paris Expositions, the building of the Statue of Liberty in a far more personal hand than any history book has ever attempted. There are heroes, such as Ambassador Elihu Washburne, appointed by President Grant, who stayed through some of Paris’s darkest days and worked tirelessly to give support and comfort to Americans, Germans and French alike. There are stories, such as the two Americans escaping Paris by hot air balloon during the Siege, which were previously unknown to me. And there is a sense of a noble, inescapable connection between France and the United States that is quickly forgotten in the muddle and shenanigans of the 21st century.

I am biased. I too went to Paris hoping to learn and experience the greatness of the city and to see the beauty in it. I will not flatter myself in saying I was half as good of a student as any of those mentioned here, but the pull was the same. I remembered streets and bridges and buildings as history marched through the pages. My journal does not contain insights, observations or friendships that are likely to influence a unique perspective of Americans in Paris during the 21st century, but it’s my story for me to tell. This compilation of renowned names, their combined record of achievements and the dynamic time in Paris history is a story inherently worth telling but even more compelling when told by a master craftsman of history writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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