This book plays so fully to David McCullough’s strengths that I could not but love every minute of it! He is at heart a story teller, and a gifted, lyrical one at that. I have read many of his full length works of biography and historical events and appreciated his copious research, but no other book has made me appreciate how much he loves people and telling the tales of their lives.
McCullough takes as his subject the tide of Americans who chose, during the 19th century, to journey to Paris, France, to study in various disciplines. There is no way possible to summarize them all, but I will hit upon a few highlights. Elizabeth Blackwell traveled to Paris to study medicine, becoming the first American woman to receive a formal medical decree, something unavailable to her in the United States; she returned to New York and opened a hospital run entirely by women. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the great Supreme Court justice, was one of many young American men to study medicine in Paris, where he said he could gain as much knowledge in two years as he would in ten under the apprenticeship system in America. Originally traveling to Paris to study painting, Samuel Morse became fired with the spirit of invention and returned to America with the seeds of the idea for the telegraph beginning to take root in his mind. Perhaps the most numerous students abroad were those who were there to study painting, many of whom gained lasting renown. Some, such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent became famous for using techniques learned in France to paint distinctly American subject matter, while others painted a more European choice of subjects. Of special interest was Mary Cassatt, who became the only American (and one of only two women) to be invited to join the Impressionists. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was another example of an American who studied in Paris, but whose greatest works, such as his Sherman and his Farragut, were American to their core. Stanford White, an architect, became especially noteworthy due to his close working relationship with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, collaborating with him on the pedestal for his statue of Farragut. Musicians are also featured, although to a lesser extent. My favorite story is that of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a pianist lauded by Chopin himself as the greatest of the age. Many American writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about American issues despite their Paris address; Cooper wrote a couple of the Natty Bumppo novels there-I can’t imagine writing about the American frontier in cosmopolitan Paris! Various periods during which Charles Sumner spent in Paris are covered, from his experience as a young student at the Sorbonne in 1838, realizing that black students are treated with absolute equality, to his time when, as a U.S. Senator in 1856, Sumner was violently attacked after giving a powerful abolitionist speech in the Senate and spent time in Paris recovering. Diplomats, especially Elihu Washburne, who gained great respect for being the only foreign representative to remain in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, are covered, as are a number of philanthropists, thinkers, and social luminaries of the time.
This was the era of the Civil War in the United States, the Franco-Prussian War, Paris’ Commune, and Paris’ Universal Exposition of 1900, among other events, so in addition to all the humanities covered, there is a good deal of history here as well. McCullough states that you can never learn about a people if you do not understand their arts, and he certainly shows an interesting side of America and how it was influenced by France in this era. The stress of the narrative is not only on the art forms and the social lives of the artists, but on the ideas that they were absorbing, both artistic and social. These ideas influenced these individuals and changed the way they viewed their own country, its prejudices, its medical system, its governance, its class structure. They saw how mediums, not only writing, but painting and sculpture, could change social bias. Medicine was recognized as something for the masses and a science far more advanced than Americans had taken it. In wrapping up his book David McCullough tells you how these young people went home to America and used the things that they had learned during their time in Paris to enrich the American experience.
Initially, I struggled with this book and felt like it was wandering all over the place, as I was listening to the audio and did not understand that the book is a collection of vignettes. I looked at a print copy of the book and familiarized myself with its structure, after which I had no further issues. In the end, I feel that audio is the perfect way to experience this book, as it has the feel of being a collection of stories, read in part by the author, and you very much get the sense that you and he are spending time together, and he is sharing all his favorite tidbits of history with you about this chosen time and place. You must have an interest in art, Paris, and European history during the 19th century to enjoy this book, however. It is very detail rich with regards to specific works of art and artistic endeavors, and to a lesser extent medical practices, and those uninterested in those topics will likely find it slow going.