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Interview With David McCullough on 'The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris'

Historian discusses his latest adventure in learning

Perhaps no other living American writer has so accessibly shared his excitement for the history of this country than David McCullough. The veteran writer — who has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for his books Truman and John Adams — has a talent for making people and places come to life. He's now done the same for some of our best artists, writers, doctors, architects and others in his latest book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, on which he spent "four of the happiest years of my life," he says. "I've loved all the work I've done with all my subjects, but this one was like no other."

See also: Excerpt from The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

Eiffel tower and Americans in Paris from 1830 to 1900

Photo by Carlos Lujan/Gallerystock

Eiffel Tower.

Between 1830 and 1900, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F. B. Morse, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Singer Sargent and other young, bright Americans took a chance and left this soil for the City of Light. "Their hopes were high," says McCullough in his book. Paris was where they needed to be, at least for a while. There, they could have a serious shot at fulfilling their ambitions. There, they could develop their passions.

"They wouldn't have been able to do that in those days without the advantages Paris offered," says McCullough. This was particularly true "in the 1830s and 1840s, when there were no art schools in this country, no schools of architecture, no medical schools even approaching the standards of those in Paris. The Sorbonne was one of the great universities in the world. Paris was the cultural center of the world. … It was exciting."

McCullough, who turns 78 this year, made periodic trips to Paris with his wife, Rosalee, during research for his book. "I had to get Paris right. I wanted to be there in all climates, all seasons, all circumstances." In an interview with the AARP Bulletin, he shared more about his latest work of history.

Q. Why was this passage to Paris by so many ambitious, talented Americans so critical to them — and to the nation?

A. It's a largely untold part of the American story. History should never be considered principally about politics or the military or social issues. How we have expressed ourselves as human beings or as Americans, in what we write, paint, sculpt, what we come up with in the way of new ideas, is an exciting and extremely important part of our story. If you want to get close to people of other times, you've got to take that seriously.

Next: Paris nurtured the talent of many young Americans. >>

Q. Getting close to those people helps us understand ourselves better as Americans, you're saying.

A. If suddenly there were no Mark Twain, Winslow Homer or George Gershwin, we would feel differently about ourselves. They're as much a part of us as the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains, just as the idea of taking risks because there's always the possibility of a better tomorrow is part of the American character.

Q. You're also very interested in the individuals you write about — people you call "extraordinary human beings."

A. Their work and their lives were expressions of affirmation, particularly the idea of ambition to excel. This was not ambition for power, or money, or fame, but to excel at what they most wanted to do with their lives.

Q. If they hadn't experienced the nurturing of their talents in Paris, they wouldn't have created many of the great works we still enjoy today.

A. That's right. It also took courage for a young aspiring painter, writer or musician to get on a sailing ship across the Atlantic and go off to a world they knew nothing about. None of them had any guarantee of success. And almost none of them quit.

Q. How important are settings to you?

A. Settings are of the utmost importance in understanding the people of other times when you're writing history and biography. I wanted to soak that up. The material that I based the book on, that I drew material from, is not in Paris. It's here in the United States. It's in English, in the letters and diaries that survived. These materials are in universities and collections — in the Library of Congress and others. But the setting is critical.

Q. You and your wife, Rosalee — your "partner in life," as you call her — first traveled to Paris in 1961. Tell us about that.

A. It was 50 years ago this year when I was working for the U.S. Information Agency. We were in our 20s. We arrived in Paris after a long flight, before the era of the jet plane. It was February, cold, and raining, and it didn't matter in the slightest. We set off on foot and walked for hours. We were so thrilled to be there.

Q. Clearly you just enjoy Paris tremendously to this day.

A. It's a city in which you want to walk. Many days, Rosalee and I would walk five miles just looking at historic sites or checking how long it really did take for Saint-Gaudens to walk from his apartment to his studio.

Q. What is your larger message for others who still have so much more they want to accomplish or see in life?

A. Do it! I started this book four years ago, at age 73. I'm now nearly 78, and it's been an adventure in learning that I wouldn't trade for anything. The reward of the work is the work. It's an exercise in the human quality called curiosity. The more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Q. No matter how old you are.

A. I gave a lecture at Yale recently, and it was a packed house. Almost everybody in the audience was 50 years old or more. These were people from the community who were just as eagerly listening and looking at the slides I put up as any student body. And I thought, isn't this wonderful.

Q. Is a thirst for knowledge of our roots also playing into this?

A. I think so. There's also a growing concern among parents and grandparents that their children or their grandchildren are not being adequately educated in the history of our country. Parents and grandparents can correct this by taking their children or grandchildren to historic places and by stressing the knowledge they have from their own life experiences of what the country has been through.

Next: Bringing back dinner table conversation with grandkids. >>

Q. That sharing it is so essential, isn't it?

A. They can also share the books they've read and loved, and urge the child or the grandchild to read those books. It works. There's an old adage, compelling and true: Show them what you love. Parents should do that. If they really enjoy the history of a particular industry, or the history of the Civil War, talk about it. Bring back the dinner table conversation. Bring back dinner!

Q. How do you do this, in your own life?

A. Rosalee and I have five children and 18 grandchildren. Two years ago, we took 24 of our family on a spring vacation week to Williamsburg. The ages of the grandchildren ranged from 6 to 19 or so, and every one of them loved it. When it was over they said, "Can we come back next year?"

Q. Name one of the most powerful moments in your book.

A. To me, it's when Oliver Wendell Holmes returns to Paris at the end. He goes to the old neighborhood. But he also wants to shake hands with Louis Pasteur, and he wants to go see the Foucault Pendulum, which was new since he'd been there. I just loved it. Then he goes to the Left Bank, sits at his favorite café, and remembers that not only did Voltaire and Jefferson once love to go there, but he himself went there with his pals when he was younger. And he says, "People don't have to go off to Florida to find the fountain of youth. It's right here, in Paris." The cliché is that Paris is for lovers and so forth. I would say that Paris is for lovers of life of all ages.

Q. Will you write another book?

A. I'm thinking about that, but I'm not ready to talk about it. I'm just thankful I'm able to do the thing I most love to do in life. I know I'm not 72 anymore, but I still love to get up out of bed in the morning and get to it. The research is like working on a detective case. But I love the writing best of all. And I'm still asking: Can I do this better than I did it before? Am I good enough to express what I really feel, what I really want this piece of work to impart? That's what it is.

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