Of all the cities in all the world, Paris dominates the American imagination more than any other. Although Americans may admire Rome or London, more have enjoyed a love affair with the French capital since Benjamin Franklin represented the 13 rebellious colonies at the court of Louis XVI. Josephine Baker captured that sentiment with her theme song, ‘J’ai deux amours/Mon pays et Paris.’ And more Americans than Rick Blaine in Casablanca have mused from afar, ‘We’ll always have Paris.’
Just how many Americans had Paris before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris crowd becomes clear in David McCullough’s delightful panorama of American life in Paris during the 19th century. Allen’s film posited that each American has his Paris, as the central character Gil Pender succumbs to the allure of the Jazz Age city of Hemingway (who called it ‘the city I love best in all the world’), Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter.
McCullough’s Paris is no less inviting, bringing together the country’s first great novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, and fellow writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James, as well as the artists Samuel F. B. Morse, Mary Cassatt, George P. A. Healy, James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Added to the artistic luminaries were the statesman Charles Sumner, whose abolitionist zeal was born in Paris, the courageous diplomat Elihu B. Washburne and America’s first woman physician, Elizabeth Blackwell.
McCullough sets his catalogue of stories against Paris’s cavalcade of rebellion, war, plague, Hausmannian urban renewal, fashion and invention. The saga begins in 1830. ‘With few exceptions,’ he writes of the wave of Americans who swept up the banks of the Seine before the first paddle steamers shortened the Atlantic crossing in 1838, ‘they were well educated and reasonably well off, or their parents were.’ Young men and a few notable young women sought in Paris the culture and sense of history that their young country was lacking and from which, they believed, it could benefit.
Morse worked diligently at painting, often under the encouraging gaze of his friend Fenimore Cooper. Lack of commercial success turned him to the invention, based on the French system of visual signals from towers several miles apart, of a wire for communicating at long distance. His electromagnetic telegraph, transmitting the dot-and-dash code that bears his name, led to the first trans-Atlantic cable that permitted Parisians and Americans to communicate instantly for the first time.
Many young Americans, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, were drawn to the Ecole de Médecine at a time when its 5,000 pupils numbered more than all the medical students in the whole United States. Moreover, French medical practice allowed male doctors to examine females — an unimaginable practice in Puritan America. Puritanism quickly faded away in Paris’s lavish restaurants, opera houses, casinos, nightclubs and brothels. The racial equality that young Charles Sumner observed in a medical class in Paris revolutionised his view of equality between black and white. His journal entry noted a view that was heretical in his homeland: ‘It must be that the distance between free blacks and the whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.’ He returned to the United States to become a radical Republican, opposed to slavery before the Civil War and the exclusion of former slaves from public life afterwards.
One of the heroes of American life in Paris was the American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War, Elihu Washburne. Washburne, whose detailed diary of a city overcome by famine and then bloodlust is quoted at length by McCullogh, set a precedent in refusing to leave the city during the Prussian siege, and the subsequent chaos of the Commune and its violent suppression. Although McCullough does not mention it, his successors during the first and second world wars, Myron T. Herrick and William Bullitt, cited Washburne’s example in similarly refusing to leave Paris with the rest of the diplomatic corps.
McCullough’s account of American luminaries among the cultivated French is captivating, but he never states his reasons for setting his study in the period between 1830 and 1900. There is nothing significant about either date, and the period itself does not constitute an ‘age’ in French or American history in the way, say, that Eric Hobsbawm’s magisterial Age of Revolution and Age of Extremes do. This lapse in explaining why he chose to write about those 70 years, however, does not diminish this reader’s pleasure in discovering the ways Paris and the maturing American republic nurtured each other.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 3, 2011Tags: America, Book review, Non-fiction, Paris