Monday, September 5, 2011

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris 1830-1900


Having read TRUMAN and also JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough, I was sure it would be a winner. I had just finished reading THE AGE OF WONDER: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, a book that covered scientists and poets in England during the last of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Sir Humphrey Davies, Mungo Park... It would be a natural lead in to this volume, so I grabbed it off the shelf at Barnes and Noble in hardback. Each morning, I ride my fixed gear bike to the local Kaladi coffee shop, grab an Americano, and read for a while between chats with friends as they pour through the door. It's a fine place to hold court and get a little reading done when a lull permits.

I was delighted by the stories of the Americans who as young folks booked passage on ships and sailed to Paris to get a finer education. McCullough focused on a few and told their stories in depth, all the while mentioning others who also visited. Many were new to me, however the main characters of the book were folks I knew of, but certainly didn't know their stories.

For example, Samuel F. B. Morse, was one of my electrical heroes from my youth, but the Paris connection centered on his life as a young oil painter, living a Bohemian existence while painting a huge canvas "The Gallery of the Louvre" which he hoped to sell to the Congress back home. Each day, James Fenimore Cooper, who was writing The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and other novels, would join him at the Louver and watch the process. The sideline of inventing the telegraph was not so much a Parisian adventure, although McCullough does do it justice in an outline. I would have been fascinated to learn more of the telegraph's rise, but the book only leaves the protagonists in Paris and drops them as they leave France. A pity!

The section of the medical schools in Paris was fascinating, with emphasis on Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the first woman obstetrician, Mary Putnam, who studied at the famous French hospitals and schools. It was the beginnings of modern medicine, and since I grew up a doctor's son, I was fascinated by the crudeness, the horror of the operating rooms, the death, the stench, and the general septic aura of the medical profession only 150 years ago. By the time I was born, we were already in the modern era of medicine, and my life as a one year old was saved by penicillin.

Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts politician who advocated for the abolition of slavery spent a considerable time in Paris, both before and after his trouncing with a cane at the hands of a Southern senator. The incivility of today's Senate and Congress seems a bitter mirror of that era. Perhaps my favorite section of the book, and undoubtedly of McCullough's was of Elihu Washburne, the American Minister to France during the reign of Louis-Philippe, the Siege of Paris, and the Communards. The civil war, the destruction, the hunger of the times were enough to drive out all but about a hundred of the 4,000 Americans there at the time, but Washburne stayed on, saved hundreds of lives through his courage and hard work. I was sucked into this adventure; it merited an entire book.

The later part of the work centered on Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the American sculptor who created such famous works as "The Farragut Monument" in Madison Square Park, unveiled in 1881, and "The Sherman Monument (with Victory)". Much time was spent on Augustus and his wife Augusta, but I was actually more fascinated with John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, likely because I took art lessons as a young man.

It ends with the rise of the Eiffel Tower, the electrification of the great expositions, the amazing explosion of science and technology at the end of the 19th Century and Thomas Alva Edison. That's where I started: as a young grade school kid, I read his biography and it changed my life.

On the whole, the book read like a series of vignettes connected only by the fact that the men and women in the stories had come to Paris as young folks to learn either art or medicine. I saw a thousand more connections, and personally would have enjoyed following these to their conclusion, showing how Paris had influenced those ideas and this nation. But I was disappointed in this and felt I was reading more of a list of Americans who had visited Paris during the time period and listened to their stories while they were there.

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