This was the first book I read after returning from a trip to France, and it was a perfect choice. Not only did I enjoy revisiting various Parisian sites in my mind’s eye, I was also fascinated to see the city through the eyes of other Americans. Nineteenth century Americans at that.
Told in McCullough’s engaging style, this book explores the voyages of various influential Americans to Paris between the 1830s and 1900. I was struck by the unique and changing relationship between the two countries during this period. While this was after the initial French aide given to the American colonists during the War for Independence – after Layfayette, Franklin, and Adams initially forged a bond between the two nations – it was still at a point in history when America was growing and developing as a nation, looking to France as a sort of older sibling to learn from. While American and British relations were still a bit frosty, France was the old world power where ambitious Americans could go to learn art or medicine, to absorb a more settled culture and sense of refinement.
Some of the people described were ones I was very familiar with: James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt. Others were less well known: Elizabeth Blackwell (the first female doctor in America), Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph and Morse code), George Healy (portrait artist), Elihu Washburne (American ambassador during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune). The book focused in particular on authors and artists, which was fascinating for me, but might prove somewhat tedious for those more interested in the political side of things. I found it especially interesting to see how the American visitors to Paris responded to chaos and upheaval in France itself – particularly the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, and the tumult of the Paris Commune.
I find picking favorites to be a difficult task, but I think this may be my favorite work of David McCullough’s that I’ve read so far.