A Conversation with David McCullough, author of The Greater Journey Q: Except for your book about the Panama Canal, this is the first time you’ve ventured abroad for the main setting of one of your books. Why Paris? DM: I first saw Paris fifty years ago. My wife and I arrived late on a rainy, cold February night after a long flight and, tired as we were, we right away set off walking to see all we could. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with the city and returned whenever I could.
© William B. McCullough
The first research I did in Paris was for my book on the Panama Canal. I went back later to France to follow Harry Truman’s experiences in World War I, then to Paris again when writing about John Adams. But I’ve also had a long interest in art and architecture and a number of American writers and composers for whom Paris was essential to their work. For me it was not so much a matter of setting for the book as the particular time period in Paris and the cast of characters.
Q: Your earlier books centered on political and military events. Yet in this book, you focus mostly on artistic and cultural and scientific developments. Why? DM: One of the most important and obvious, yet too often ignored lessons of history is that there’s far more to it than politics and soldiers. Perhaps it’s because so much of our education is divided up into categories that such important aspects of life as art, music, theater, architecture, science, and poetry are seen as altogether separate from history. Yet it’s so often the art of other times that lives longest and says the most. One morning some years back I was driving down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington during the rush hour and as everything slowed to a crawl at Sheridan Circle, I looked over at the statue of General Sheridan, there on his horse in the middle of the circle with a requisite pigeon on his hat. And I began wondering how many of the thousands of people who drive around that circle twice a day every day have any idea who Phil Sheridan was. At the same time Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing on my car radio and it struck me that the magic of Gershwin was as great as ever at that moment for me and everyone else tuned in. He was alive. So which of those two exceptional Americans—the general or the composer—should be taken as the more important, the more expressive of who we are and what we aspire to? In my new book I wanted to concentrate on a part of the American experience that could exemplify this point, and it struck me that the story of the talented, aspiring Americans in Paris in the nineteenth century might work perfectly. I settled on the years between 1830 and 1900, knowing relatively little had been done on that time in Paris, but scarcely imagining the treasures I was to find in the way of extraordinary diaries, letters, and private memoirs.
Q: Many books have been written about Americans in Paris at the time of the American Revolution and in the early years of the republic, and in the early part of the twentieth century—the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But relatively little has been written about the period you chose, from 1830 to 1900. What about this time period did you find so compelling to choose to write about it? DM: I felt that in my biography of John Adams I had already written about the times of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson in Paris, and it seemed to me the whole Fitzgerald-Hemingway-Gertrude Stein era has been pretty thoroughly worked over. But between those two periods was a large, extremely eventful, colorful, highly important span of seventy years in Paris filled with uncommonly gifted, aspiring Americans and the time and the people—not to say the place on the map—appealed to me enormously. The fact that the subject had been largely bypassed made it all the more appealing. History—life—is about change, and if there was ever a time filled with change, it was then. Think of the big changes: the start of steam navigation at sea, the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, electric light, the building of our transcontinental railroad, the opening of the Suez Canal, the discovery of anesthetics, the political upheavals across Europe, the whole rebuilding of Paris, and this in conjunction with the invention of photography and the advent of the Impressionists!
Q: Who were a few of the most notable Americans who came to Paris during the time you chronicle? DM: James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans; Samuel F.B. Morse, accomplished artist and inventor of the telegraph and the Morse code; Charles Sumner, the most powerful voice of abolition in American politics; Oliver Wendell Holmes, celebrated poet, essayist, and professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America; Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the brilliant sculptor of many of our most enduring monuments. These are some of the better known among them. Others were George Catlin, painter of the Great Plains Indians; Louis Moreau Gottschalk, pianist and composer who made his Paris concert debut at age fifteen; William Wells Brown, fugitive slave and the first African-American novelist; historian Henry Adams; novelist Henry James; painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. George P. A. Healy is one who is not as well known as he should be. His is an extraordinary story of a penniless, talented boy who out of sheer determination to excel as an artist made his way to Paris and who later, as a portrait painter, painted presidents and generals and kings on both sides of the Atlantic, including Abraham Lincoln. But then they all went to Paris on a mission to learn, and my feeling was I wanted to go with them—to learn.
Q: Why did so many Americans come to Paris to study medicine? Among them was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States. How far ahead were the French at that point—in medicine and in women’s rights? What did the Americans learn and bring back home? DM: Medicine and medical training in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century was pathetically far behind what it was in Europe, and Paris was then the medical capital, its medical training the finest in the world. The Paris medical school, the École de Medecine, was the showpiece of French education. In the United States then there were few medical schools and even the best were small and inadequate. Most American doctors of the time never went to medical school. For their training they apprenticed under a practicing physician who in most cases had never been to medical school. The great École de Medecine had a faculty of
twenty-six and offered lectures on some twenty different subjects. Moreover, under the Paris system, students made hospital rounds with their celebrated professors. The main Paris hospital, the Hôtel Dieu, served more than 15,000 patients a year. So there were always numerous cases from which to learn of virtually every disease and ailment. In America then most women would have preferred to die than to let a man—a doctor—examine their bodies. In France there was no such squeamishness among women, and so in Paris a medical student could learn far more from firsthand experience. Also in France there was no bias against the use of cadavers for dissection whereas at home such use of corpses was abhorrent, even illegal in many states, with the result relatively few students ever had the chance to dissect a body. In Paris dissection was a major part of a medical student’s training and there was always a ready supply of cadavers. In the great Amphitheater of Anatomy more than 600 students at a time worked dissecting bodies. Unpleasant as this was in many ways, it was far better that they practice on the dead than on the living. If the work was laborious, they had chosen a laborious profession. The impact of the Paris training had tremendous, far-reaching effect on medical practice and medical training at home. One Paris-trained American would write a book on the use of the stethoscope that would be used by American medical students for the next half century. Another became the first professor of ophthalmology at Harvard. Another, Oliver Wendell Holmes, taught anatomy at Harvard for thirty-six years. And oh how those American medical students had to work in their Paris years! They worked harder than they ever had in their lives until then, and as far as I was able to determine, not one of them ever gave up, ever quit.
Q: The largest group of Americans came to study art, with Paris being the undisputed artistic capital of the world at that time. You write about many artists, but you focus in particular on the painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, as well as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. What are they best known for today? How did Paris influence them? DM: American painters have been going to Paris since the 18th century. John Trumbull for example worked out the basic idea with Thomas Jefferson for his famous painting of the Declaration of Independence while the two of them were in Paris. The distinctive achievements of Mary Cassatt resulted from her determination to be more than just “a woman who paints,” but to be an artist. She was a pioneer in this respect and because of her resolve and her exceptional talent she became the first American to be invited to join the Impressionist movement. She lived and worked with unfailing dedication for the rest of her life and while never leaving France, she never considered herself anything other than an American. John Singer Sargent, who was also an American of astonishing talent and some ten years younger than Mary Cassatt, was also in Paris the same time and demonstrating a brilliance on canvas that made him known as the most accomplished American painter of the day, even though he was still in his 20s. Several of his most notable works—indeed American masterpieces—were painted during this period in Paris. He, too, like Mary Cassatt, never considered himself anything other than an American, irrespective of the fact that he was born in Europe and lived most of his life there. The works of both Cassatt and Sargent are to be found in most of the major museum collections in America. Their gifts to American art are timeless. Their stories are revealing of a side of the American experience that is distinctive and compelling in themselves. Mary Cassatt’s paintings of her mother and sister seen in private repose, reading, sipping tea, or perhaps working on a tapestry take us into the private, safe, and sheltered world she knew so well. But it is the theme of mother and child in her work that she is best known for—she who never married and never had a child. Sargent’s magnificent El Jaleo, a scene of Spanish dancing, his portrait of the four Boit daughters, and his sensational Madame X are each a story unto themselves and their appeal is no less today than in the time when they were first exhibited.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens stands today as one of the foremost geniuses of American sculpture. His monumental works in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Washington evoke American history as the works of no other American artist. His ambition to excel was like that of so many others who went to Paris, impervious to almost every imaginable obstacle. He was the son of an immigrant shoemaker. He was put to work at age 13 but with one hundred dollars in his pocket, he sailed for France in steerage in order to study sculpture at the famous École Beaux Arts. Over three different passages in Paris, at three different stages in his life, evolved the full powers of his talent. Among the results were the celebrated statue of Admiral Farragut in New York’s Madison Square and the powerful equestrian statue of General Sherman and the goddess of Victory at the entrance to New York’s Central Park by the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. Both the Farragut and the Sherman monuments were made in Paris.
Q: How did Paris encourage young Charles Sumner to become an abolitionist and an outspoken anti-slavery U.S. Senator from Massachusetts? DM: Charles Sumner was a young Boston attorney who decided he knew too little about a great many things and so he borrowed money from friends and set off for Paris to attend lectures at the famous College of the Sorbonne. He couldn’t speak French, but he didn’t let that stop him any more than any of the others let it stop them. It was while attending one of the lectures that he noticed that black students at the Sorbonne dressed and acted no differently from the other students and were treated no differently. He was pleased to see this, though it seemed strange, and he began to wonder, as he wrote, whether the way black people were treated at home “derived from education” and did not exist “in the nature of things.” It was a transforming revelation, as he recorded at the time in his journal, and he returned home with a changed outlook. Elected to the United States Senate at age forty, he became the most powerful of voices for abolition and with immense consequences for both the country and himself. Of all that Americans were to “bring home” from their time in Paris, in the way of new ideas, new ways of seeing things, this was to be as important as any.
Q: Elihu Washburne was posted to Paris as the American ambassador during some of the most tumultuous times in French history, including the siege of the city during the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune uprising that followed. What were those times like? How did Washburne’s courage and ingenuity earn the admiration not only of his fellow Americans but of the Europeans as well? DM: When veteran congressman Elihu Washburne was appointed American Minister to France by President Ulysses S. Grant, he went off to France imagining that his new post would provide for some “peace and quiet.” He arrived not long before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. When the German army marched on Paris, the diplomatic representatives of all the other major countries left town as quickly as possible—all but Elihu Washburne—who of his own choice chose to stay, feeling it was his duty, as long as other Americans were still there to look after. As a consequence he was present through the horrific five-month siege of Paris tending to the needs of not only the Americans present but other foreigners. Following the end of the siege came the even more horrific civil war known as the Commune during which he also felt it his duty to remain at his post. What makes his story even more remarkable is that he kept a diary of everything that he witnessed never failing to put down all that he knew, saw, and felt every single day—a diary that until now has been almost entirely ignored. One of the thrills of my work on this book was the chance to work with that diary.
Q: Your story encompasses the transformation of Paris from a spectacular medieval city to the even more splendid capital of broad boulevards and open vistas that we know today. How did the experience of Americans in Paris result in more parks and green spaces in cities throughout the United States? DM: History is about change and Paris was changing continuously through the years between 1830 and 1900, but never so dramatically as during the time of the great demolition and rebuilding under Georges Haussmann. The city was transformed by broad avenues and greatly enhanced public parks, by the planting of thousands of trees and the installation of thousands of lights. Never, ever did the City of Light glow so. For anyone who was there, and particularly for the young Americans on hand, the possibility of enlarging the benefits of urban living were made abundantly clear. Many of the same ideas and results achieved by the French in Paris in city planning and urban renewal were brought home with telling results in our own country. It wasnâ€™t just that Paris gave them a sense of what great museums offered or performances in ballet and opera, but how the joie de vivre that was part of the French way of life could be expressed or the architecture and perspectives of a heavily populated center could be an art form in themselves.
Q: Even though this book is set almost entirely in Paris, many early readers have seen it as a quintessentially American story. Do you agree? DM: The setting for my book is Paris and in many ways Paris is a major character in the book. Some might even feel it is the major character in the book. But it is emphatically an American story. It is a big, colorful, important, and revealing portion of the American experience and virtually all of the accounts of what happened to the various individuals involved have been drawn directly from their own writings. Nearly all the research has been done here in the United States because the letters they wrote were sent here, because the journals they kept were brought home here, and because the memoirs theyâ€™ve left us were written here. Most of those letters, diaries, memoirs, and the like are here in our great libraries and archival collections. Furthermore, with very few exceptions, all of these aspiring men and women said themselves at the time that a major part of their motivation to go to Paris in the first place was the desire to come back able to do more for their own country. And itâ€™s been of great importance to me to make clear all that they did bring home from their time and its effect on our own history, and indeed in each of us.