Author-historian David McCullough (1776, John Adams, Truman, and more) has now applied his talents in research and description to the years 1830 – 1900, but not as they were lived in America. In his latest study, McCullough gives us a profound feel for how a number of enthusiastic Americans experienced Paris, France, and brought or sent back to the United States the benefits that their broadened horizon generated.
Some of those benefits are easily named, such as the idea for an electromagnetic telegraph and the Morse code. But most of the benefits over the time period covered have to be acknowledged as incalculable, such as the influence of the new Impressionist art movement on Mary Cassatt’s developing style and subsequent contributions to the art world. McCullough’s sweeping work reminds us that France, through its Parisian institutions and teachers especially, was supportive of and valuable to our country’s steep learning curve and creativity in nineteenth-century arts, medicine, and technology.
There are many fascinating accountings in this book including, for example, the often hair-raising sea voyages to get to France; the conditions under which surgeries were accomplished — sans anesthetics or disinfecting and sterilizing procedures, still unknown anywhere; the seven trunks of clothes one woman needed in order to spend a week at Emperor Louis Napoleon’s country home; and the epiphany Charles Sumner had in Paris that eventually led to his being brutally attacked back on the floor of the Senate Chamber.
What may be (and could be, but who’s counting) a thousand people mentioned, the following are among the recognizable names given greatest attention: Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, George Healy, John Singer Sargent, Elihu Washburne, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Additional people are covered in a bit less depth, and oh-so-many others are given only a sentence or two or three.
Through hundreds of comments in addition to the author’s, we learn much about the personal lifestyles of myriad individuals — teachers, doctors, inventors, politicians, writers, and artists of all kinds, from painters and sculptors to musicians, singers, and dancers. We also learn about French leaders, the Second Empire, the Second and Third Republics, and the Franco-Prussian War and siege of Paris. All these occurred during the time period covered, and all affected or were reported by Americans in Paris. The American Civil War also occurred during this period, of course — and we learn that the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy.