BOSTON — The 19th century English had their Italy, the Russians their Riviera, but for Americans it was always a love affair with Paris. It was a pleasure-loving Bostonian by the name of Thomas Appleton who, in the 1830s, coined the phrase: “Good Americans when they die go to Paris.”
America’s most popular historian, David McCullough, has brought all that to his new No. 1 bestseller: “The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris.” It covers the years from 1830 to 1900, a period in which America was established and rich enough to begin sending her sons and daughters to Paris for its culture, its art and architecture, its sciences and for its gaiety. Oliver Wendell Holmes came to study medicine because Paris had the best schools in the world.
“I have been interested in, charmed, and enthralled by Paris since I was a kid,” McCullough told me, ever since he watched Gene Kelly dance his way through “An American in Paris,” a film featuring the music of George Gershwin.
McCullough has, of course, been a frequent visitor, researching books such as “John Adams,” “A Path between the Seas,” about the Panama Canal, and Harry Truman’s World War One days for “Truman.”
He thought he had already covered the 18th century Paris of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald period had been done and redone to death, McCullough thought, but 19th century Americans in Paris “was a great story that had been neglected,” and all the better that it was not about warriors and statesmen, but mostly about artists, writers and students.
And Paris itself was dramatically changing in those years, “not just from wars and revolutions and cholera epidemics,” but from the dramatic make-over that Napoleon III and Georges-Eugene Haussmann carried out.
Americans in Paris lived through empires and republics, through revolutions and wars. But nothing compared, before or since, to the indignities and destruction suffered during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the siege of Paris, and then the rising of the “Communards” which led to horrible atrocities.
"That the City of Lights, the center of civilization, could have gone through such a vile convulsion cannot be ignored,” McCullough said. “ It was not a moveable feast.”
Some Americans in Paris were rich. Some, such as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, were poor. Some sought to be introduced at court when kings reigned. Others shared the sentiments of Paris radicals. A great draw in the early days was the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American revolution.
Then there was the prosperous American dentist, Thomas Evans, whom the Empress Eugenie sought out when she thought it advisable to flee Paris. He got her out of town and across the channel to safety in England.
One of my favorite characters is Charles Sumner who, when he saw how black students were treated with dignity in Paris, began to realize that slavery was not the natural order of things. He became an ardent abolitionist and a U.S. senator who, following a fiery speech, was nearly beaten to death on the senate floor by a South Carolina congressman.
One of McCullough’s favorites is the heroic American ambassador, Elihu Washburne, who stayed in Paris helping Americans, neutrals, even stranded German civilians, during the siege and capture of Paris by the Prussians, and then the Paris Commune.
McCullough writes that “numbers of writers of high reputation — Cooper, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe — had written of their Paris days before Washburne ever arrived, and many more would take their turns in years to come. But no one ever, before or after, wrote anything like Washburne’s Paris diary." Finding the diary, and publishing it for the first time, was one of those thrills that historians live for, McCullough told me.
The 19th century Americans who flocked to Paris “did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland," McCullough writes. That would come later with James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, African-Americans who came to Paris to escape racial discrimination.
Paris of today may not be the artists’ mecca it was for Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent. Naughty Paris that attracted so many Anglo Saxons is no longer any naughtier than New York. And writers may not see it as their destiny to live above sawmills and drink at the Dome or Le Select as they once did. But creative Americans are still drawn to Paris. American novelist, Ward Just, who spends every winter Paris, for example, found inspiration for the title for his latest book, “Rodin’s Debutante,” from an afternoon in a Paris museum.
“We’ll always have Paris, ” Humphrey Bogart famously said to Ingrid Berman in a film about another city. For legions of Americans that says it all.