A Who’s Who of Americans in Paris in the 1800’s
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
A Who’s Who of 1800’s Americans travel to Paris to study medicine and art and to just bask in the radiance that is the world’s greatest city. Everyone’s here, Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.), James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Elizabeth Blackwell, John Singer Sergeant, Mary Cassatt, Teddie Roosevelt, the James brothers, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, and everyone else you can think of.
“The French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite,” observed John Sanderson.
“We demolish dinner, they eat it.”
They looked at art
It was on Sunday only that the Musée du Louvre was open to the public,
and to the astonishment of the Americans, the enormous Sunday crowds at the museum included people from all walks of life, as though everyone cared about art.
They observed dead bodies
…for those with the stomach for it, there was another popular attraction of which no mention was to be found in Galignani’s Guide. At the Paris morgue on the Île-de-la-Cité unidentified bodies taken from the Seine were regularly put on public display. Most of the bodies had been caught in a net stretched across the river for that purpose downstream in Saint-Cloud. Some were murder victims, but the great majority were suicides stripped of their clothes, they lay stretched out on black marble tables, on the change someone might claim them. Otherwise, after three days, they were sold to doctors for ten francs each…As Sanderson noted, “You can stop in on your way as you go to the flower market, which is just opposite.”
The flower market might have been necessary, after that.
Charles Sumner, the senator who later, after giving an anti-slavery speech on the Senate floor, would be famously and most brutally attacked in that same chamber by Congressman and slave-owner Preston S. Brooks of (you guessed it) South Carolina, was not always an abolitionist. That changed in Paris, on Saturday, January 20, 1838, when he attended a lecture at the Sorbonne. Among the audience, he noted two or three blacks.
“They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men, and their color seemed to be no objection to them…with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among is is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things…” It was for Sumner a stunning revelation. Until this point he is not known to have shown any particular interest in the lives of black people, neither free blacks nor slaves.
Paris was not only transformative for the Americans who went there, but the world itself was transforming around them at the same time. The first wave of Americans traveled to Europe by sail, a journey that could take as long as two months, and would then board a diligence (stagecoach) for Paris, taking days to arrive. The second wave arrived by steam, taking considerably less time about it, and took the train, which took hours. Paris went through one war, two kings and three revolutions during this time, and what les Americains didn’t have front row seats to they read about via the first transAtlantic cable.
These expat Americans were so well-regarded by the Parisians that you better understand their gift of the Statue of Liberty. Stacy Schiff (read my review of her Cleopatra here, http://www.stabenow.com/2011/08/01/ca…) said of A Greater Journey in her NYT review
If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Asterix it is McCullough.
McCullough is definitely a Francophile par exellence. He’ll make you one, too.
Book Review Monday Chatter A Greater Journey David McCullough Paris
Dana View All →
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.
For a glimpse (nay, a vision) of “the other Paris”, Luc Sante’s book is highly recommended.
Added bonus: a “conte cruel” by Robert Barr about the Paris morgue.
Oh great, Jean-Daniel. Like there aren’t enough books on my to-read shelf already.