Multiple Americans in Paris
I have heard David McCullough narrate so many PBS specials over the years that when I began reading this book, I heard his voice telling it to me. It is structured much like many of those as well, following the route of one character who followed one course of action, then contrasting that with the route of another character and so on, like a woven tapestry. That seems to be the most effective way to write when dealing with the sagas of multiple characters. The stereotypes of Paris as the city of love, the seductress, are true to a certain extent. In the nineteenth century it was an alluring Mecca for aspiring young American artists, writers, doctors, architects, etc. Most of these young people came from affluent families who not only could provide the financial aid to get their offspring overseas but that also acknowledged the cultural benefits of living in such a community. The cost of living was reasonable, at least in the early part of the century, and one could live relatively well and keep expenses to a reasonable level. When dealing with the stories of several diverse individuals, certain characters will emerge as ‘leads’ and make more of an indelible impression than others. I did not know that Samuel Morse, co-inventor of Morse code and the single-wire telegraph, originally went to Paris with the expectation of becoming a major painter. Once he got there he worked diligently to become one. Luckily, he developed peripheral interests such as electromagnetism, which inspired Morse to develop the telegraph. When it became obvious that he would never attain critical or commercial recognition as an artist, Morse gave up painting altogether and developed his invention, eventually acquiring the fame and wealth that had eluded him earlier. One of the most gripping episodes in the book concerns the Siege of Paris in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Elihu Washburne was the American diplomatic minister to France and the only representative of a foreign government to stay in France and provide diplomatic and humanitarian support throughout the siege, the ensuing deprivation, starvation, depletion of resources and violent overthrow by the Paris Commune. Even as food supplies vanished and residents resorted to eating horses, dogs and rats (‘rat soufflé’ became a menu option), many restaurants remained open and adapted to the conditions. The diary that Washburne kept provides a valuable first-hand account of this time. Almost every major artistic and literary figure that set foot in Paris during the years 1830-1890 at least gets a mention. McCullough also includes accounts of the origin of those two Paris-based structures the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Lady Liberty was a colossal exported gift to America. Its inner iron skeletal structure was built by France’s premier civil engineer, Gustave Eiffel, whose giant tower was originally intended as a gateway to the 1889 Exposition Universalle, the French World’s Fair. Originally considered a vulgar eyesore by many critics (‘more in character with America’), it eventually became the most common visual symbol of Paris. I had previously known of Americans in Paris primarily through the fiction of Henry James, whose early novel The American opens with a scene in the Louvre. James was just one of many Americans magnetically drawn to Paris. McCullough is a master narrative weaver, deftly juggling the journeys of dozens of characters and effectively conveying the reasons Paris cast such a pervasive spell on so many Americans, many of whom left and returned many times. Subsequent to the nineteenth century, an anti-French prejudice seems to have become prevalent among many Americans. This attitude is in stark contrast to the prevailing nineteenth century view, at least of those Americans who had the means to experience it for themselves, that Paris has been for many centuries one of the world’s foremost cultural centers.

Written like fascinating fiction while the reading is fascinating truth. I had to buy this book so I could further read at my leisure. Imagining our forefathers as it was to adventure to France for educational improvement while living in the Zip Travel of today is quite a trip in itself. Do take this one out!