David McCullough: In the Footsteps of the First Americans in Paris

American historian David McCullough passed away on August 7 at the age of 89. Throughout his career, he wrote on Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal. He was also renowned for his book on the Americans who came in search of training and education in Paris, the global capital of knowledge in the 19th century. We had the privilege of meeting him in 2014, for the French publication of The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
David McCullough in Paris. © William B. McCullough

David McCullough is very popular in the United States yet almost unknown in France, and is considered the “master of the art of narrative history.” His research saw him visit the places frequented by his subjects, and his lively books read like novels. Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001) each received a Pulitzer Prize and the latter was adapted as an HBO television series, which went on to win four Golden Globes and 13 Emmy Awards. In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011), he retraces the footsteps of the first wave of American travelers who came to Paris in the 19th century. This French experience was decisive for both their careers and the construction of America’s future power.

At the time, the fledgling democracy had grown close to the old revolutionary nation. Through revolts and coups d’état, France had shifted from a constitutional monarchy to the Second Empire, then to the massacres of the Commune before reintroducing a republic. The book follows the hopes and dreams of this handful of Americans who had come to learn in the world’s cultural capital, a place where wine was cheaper than milk. McCullough describes the shared experiences of writer James Fenimore Cooper, the successful author of The Last of the Mohicans, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, painter Samuel Morse, who returned home to invent the electrical telegraph, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Blackwell, the founder of the first hospital in New York City managed by women, writer and runaway slave William Wells Brown, and the future abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. These figures all developed their identities and were enriched by their time in Paris. The Greater Journey is a way to better understand the French legacy within the history of how America was built.

France-Amérique: What sparked your interest in France, and Paris in particular?

David McCullough: No American can fail to be impressed when looking at what we owe France. Certain things that we believe to be entirely American are in fact not American at all. We should therefore gain a better understanding of our cultural roots. We have often learned much from great men and women from abroad. I was fascinated by this subject, and I loved writing this book. I started my research with a historical study of a group of American medical students who went to Paris to continue their education. It is important to realize that history does not exclusively focus on politics and military matters. History is also about art, ideas, music, architecture – every field imaginable! Over the long-term, changes in culture are often what count the most. The players in these fields deserve just as much attention as politicians. In my biographies about Adams and Truman, and in my previous works, I discussed French-American ties within the context of the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, with its system of compressed-air caissons developed in France. The challenge was then to select the information that ended up in this book. I had so many interesting facts about this group of Americans that I could have written a whole book on each of their lives. At the moment [in 2014], I am writing a book about the Wright brothers, two American aviation pioneers, who also spent time in France.

Why did no one write about Americans in Paris during the 19th century before you?

I don’t understand why, but I am delighted that no one looked into this part of history before. I have had free rein! I felt like a pioneer when I was using sources that had not been studied until now.

How did you carry out your research?

This book represents five years of work. As well as the bibliographical aspect, I also traveled to Paris several times. For example, I walked the same streets to check that it took 20 minutes to get to a workshop from an apartment. I did not include French sources, as I wanted to retrain an exclusively American perspective. Even though some of these figures are unknown in France, they all later became famous in their different disciplines. They sent letters to the United States, wrote personal diaries, and brought them back to America. Their archives are now found across a large number of American libraries.

Painter Samuel Morse is one of the protagonists in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey. We have him to thank for the famous 1831 painting Gallery of the Louvre. In the foreground, he is featured with one of his students. In the background, on the left, there is James Fenimore Cooper, another iconic character in McCullough’s book, accompanied by his wife and their daughter. © Terra Foundation for American Art

None of the Americans in your book spoke French. What were their profiles and their motivations?

No, none of them spoke French, which is one of the most impressive things among all their accomplishments. Imagine these medical students, none of whom had any real academic training, in the midst of thousands of students at a Parisian university, unable to speak a word of their language! Among the hundreds of American students who arrived every year, I did not find a single one who abandoned their studies in France. They all claim to have had the best years of their lives in Paris. Their profiles are very diverse; they had a basic education and most of them were poor. But they were all desperate to learn. Paris was the cultural capital during the 19th century; the human mind and creativity were both accessible and held in the highest esteem. However, this is no fairy tale. Terrible events and political revolts took place during these years. People wanted to come to Paris because this trip met a certain need, yet very few stayed in France definitively afterwards. They had mainly come looking for something of value for their careers and their people in America. The United States was being built at the time; it was a nation under construction. The medical schools were pathetic, and there were no art or architecture schools. Students had to come to France to learn how to paint.

How do you explain republican Americans’ interest in and indulgence towards monarchs such as Louis-Philippe, or Emperor Napoleon III?

America does not like royalty or aristocracy, but Louis-Philippe was appreciated for the time he had spent in America before acceding to the throne. [The future king, who was exiled during the French Revolution, lived in the United States from 1796 to 1799. He visited Philadelphia, New York City, Virginia, and the Great Lakes.] Napoleon III was also admired. He spoke fluent English and showed great interest in the debate around ideas and modernism for urban and economic development.

Did Charles Sumner’s destiny change the day he saw a Black student at the Sorbonne?

We will never know if he would have started a career in politics supporting the abolitionist cause without this experience. But the event is not just a historian’s theory; he actually wrote about the impact it had on him in his diary. I doubt that any other incident would have inspired him to become an abolitionist. In America, he would never have seen a Black person at a university, treated this way by their peers, and wearing the same clothes as their classmates.

During the Commune in 1870-1871, the U.S. ambassador Elihu Washburne refused to abandon his post. Could you tell us more?

He was the only representative of a major country who did not leave Paris. He risked his life every day for the people of Paris. His description of the events is one of the most valuable accounts that we have, in any language. And no one had studied his writings before me.

Do the major French myths that are still part of the American collective imagination, such as culinary arts and Parisian women, date back to this period?

Yes. Not only did the Americans love Paris, they also liked the French. The development of transatlantic crossings, with the arrival of steamships sailing on regular lines, completely transformed the traveling experience – much like modern aviation has today. It was a technical revolution that enabled more and more Americans to come to Paris, and allowed these myths to really take root.

Why is narrative history, of which you are a major figure, so rare in France?

That’s a good question, and I don’t really know the answer. This is how I write naturally, as part of a longstanding American tradition. The idea is not simply to write for other historians but for the general public, so that they can learn what came before us and benefit from this experience.


Interview published in the September 2014 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.