Nattily dressed in a dark suit and red and blue striped tie, serious historian David McCullough let his droll humor shine through last night during his Arts & Letters Live appearance at the Fairmont Hotel.
His new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, maps the octopus-like reach of French culture across the Atlantic. "Look at the names of the cities and towns and rivers and streets that have French names," McCullough, 77, told a well-dressed crowd. "They're right here in Texas. Beaumont, Texas. Paris, Texas. I understand there's a 'Mar-sails' Avenue right here. We don't necessarily pronounce them the way the French do," he said.
The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner spent four years digging up old journals and records to piece together The Greater Journey. The book spotlights Americans whose contributions to art, literature and science were directly influenced by the French. "Most Americans, even most educated Americans, tend to forget the effect of France on our story as a people," McCullough said. "The French part of it is underestimated and underappreciated."
The book explores the years between 1830 and 1900, filling in the gap between the Parisian sojourns of founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and "Lost Generation" expatriates Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Among the more famous American overachievers of the period were author James Fenimore Cooper, inventor Samuel Morse and artist George Healy.
Of all the subjects in the book, McCullough admitted a fondness for sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, born a shoemaker's son in Ireland. Saint-Gaudens went from rags-to-riches creating a series of Civil War monuments like the Shaw Memorial, which commemorates African-American soldiers.
The Americans lured to Paris didn't go abroad for fame or money, but to excel, said McCullough. They used that knowledge to create new technology, improve medical science, incubate new ideas and push the boundaries of art and literature. Morse's telegraph was based on a model he saw in Europe. "These were very important Americans," McCullough said. "And their stories are as important, in many ways, as those of the politicians and generals. Because politics and the military is not only what history is about."
One politician mentioned by McCullough - Charles Sumner - stands out for his anti-slavery views. As a young man, Sumner studied alongside blacks at the Sorbonne, prompting him to adopt a staunch abolitionist stance. His views nearly cost him his life when an opposing Southern senator wielding a walking cane severely beat Sumner on the floor of the Senate. The attack scarred him, but Sumner's quest for equality, regardless of race, eventually came true.
The Greater Journey reminds us that the French influence dates back to our country's birth. They gifted us with the physical embodiment of modern American identity, the Statue of Liberty. They authorized the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of our nation. You can't study American history without tripping over the tri-color flag. When asked about rumbles of anti-French sentiment in the U.S., McCullough responded that anyone with a grudge against France likely hasn't been there. To this day, he said, Paris remains a "crossroads of the world."
Clearly, McCullough hopes to inspire a new American Renaissance. He's pushing us to embrace the world, to learn what we can and create something worthwhile.
History does have a habit of repeating itself.
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