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How Paris Created America

May 29, 2011

Stacy Schiff in NYT Sunday Book Review:

David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Astérix it is McCullough. He seems to have had something else in mind, however. With “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.

The tradition began very much as a case of “Lafayette, nous voici.” The first pilgrims were nearly all single, wealthy men in their 20s, serious of purpose and ambitious by nature. A number of them had played a role in the French general’s triumphant return to America. They were provincial and inexperienced. They had never before sailed. They knew little French literature. They did not yet suspect that one could be seduced by breakfast. Following a tradition established years earlier by John Adams, they came to Paris to do their homework. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner and Samuel F. B. Morse looked to the city as library and laboratory rather than as liberation. The idea was to settle in Paris to “study hard,” a concept that would put most junior-year-abroad programs out of business. [More]

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