By David McCullough
“I’d like to see Paris before I die.”
That’s how W. C. Fields, about to be hanged in “My Little Chickadee,” answers when he’s asked if he has any last wish.
Jacob Taubes, when he chaired Columbia University’s Religion Department, produced this version. One member of a married pair says to the other, “If one of us dies first, I will go to Paris.”
Anyway, Americans have been feeling that way for about 200 years. The phases that were played out in the nineteenth century have been expertly evoked by the great David McCullough. At first the book goes along anecdotally, at a low and even tempo. Later, it heats up dramatically.
From the 1830’s onward, Americans went to Paris for training of various kinds. The best medical training was to be found there. You got to watch surgeries performed on poor wretches without anaesthetics. Afterward, the patient usually died. But the professor’s technique and autocratic assurance were brilliant. Would-be artists went there to learn their craft. In those days, painting was not about self-expression. Daylight hours were spent on high ladders in the Louvre, copying the great masters. Promising young artists could gain admission to courses taught by the masters of the day, where they learned how to draw the human figure and how to produce a painting from the canvass on up.
Meanwhile, New England puritans were stunned to discover how exquisite food could be, how inimitable a fashionable Parisian woman could be – and how many arts a civilized life could comport. They had never seen a city so charming, so capable of flooding the senses! They hoped earnestly to return home without losing their purity. They wondered, shyly, if some of these civilized arts might be exported to the new American Republic without sacrificing its innocent austerities.
Everyone went to Paris, sooner or later: Emerson, Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, Henry Adams, Henry James, Whistler, Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, the list goes on and on. Only Thoreau stayed home, as we might expect.
The earlier chapters reminded me astonishingly of the initial impressions of Paris that I and my fellow American Fulbright scholars shared in the following century. We were stunned. We talked about it endlessly – and in much the same terms!
In the course of the nineteenth-century, this serenely urbane setting erupts several times, each time with more bloodshed and pitiless destruction of its landmarks. In 1848, Louis-Philippe, the last king of France, is forced to abdicate and flee. His successor, Louis Napoleon, has time to superintend the reconfiguring of Paris into a splendid seat of empire before he finds himself in an ill-fated war with the Prussia of Otto von Bismark.
I could have told him not to do that. His ministers — perhaps carried away by France’s architectural glory – may have mistaken that kind of superiority for triumph on the battlefield. One has to keep these categories distinct.
The disaster of the Franco-Prussian war is followed by the strange and bloody uprising known as the Commune.
Till finally, it all settles down again, to an even-tempered finale marked by the advent of a new generation of American artists whose talent has developed to such a point of assurance, beauty and originality, that they are even competitive with their young French counterparts.
With the nineteenth century drawing to a close, we can serenely bring down the curtain on the first century of our compatriots in Paris.