Note: David McCullough interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, aired July 24, follows this article.
Historian David McCullough took 600 or so West Tisbury Library supporters on a journey to Paris Wednesday evening. His traveling companions got to know a group of young, talented, ambitious, intrepid, and determined Americans whom Mr. McCullough had himself come to admire as he wrote the story of their 19th-century travels from the brand-new country that was their home and all they knew to Paris, in pursuit of cultural, medical, and scientific education in the City of Light.
The list of Paris-bound Americans is long — James Fenimore Cooper, the writer; Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter; painter George P. A. Healy; teacher Emma Willard; Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet and physician; Charles Sumner, eventually a senator; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America; Harriet Beecher Stowe, off to Paris after her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” raised such a ruckus at home that she needed relief; dutiful, even heroic, ambassador Elihu Washburne — and many others whose Paris experiences often nourished great Parisian friendships and later, back home, the cultural, artistic, and intellectual life of the United States.
Mr. McCullough and his wife, Rosalee, whom he unfailingly describes as his editor-in-chief, live on Music Street. They have been unflagging supporters of the effort to remodel and expand the town’s library. It’s a small library, but 89 percent of town residents have a library card, and small as it is, the West Tisbury Library hosts the largest materials collection of all Island libraries.
The occasion for Mr. McCullough’s talk is the next step in the effort to fund the library’s planned expansion. The first step was to secure a state commitment of more than $2.9 million to fund the expansion. The state announced its commitment a week ago. Now, funds from a combination of private donations and town appropriations, to the tune of $2 million, must be raised to match the state grant. Mr. McCullough, a library lover by profession and inclination, is the honorary chairman of the library foundation.
Author of highly regarded biographies of Harry Truman, John Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt and widely known for his contributions to public television documentaries, Mr. McCullough’s new book is “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Its focus is not one person, not a statesman, a general, or a president. The focus is a group of young men and women — “the first wave of … aspiring Americans,” Mr. McCullough says. What they had in common, he discovered in his research and writing, was that, “Their hopes were high. They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream….”
Mr. McCullough, a genial, practiced story teller, in easy but passionate command of his material, told his delighted audience that while he was at work on “The Greater Journey,” academic friends and historians asked often what was his theme. For a while, he answered that he didn’t have one. It must have been a shock. But in time, the theme arrived, as he came to know these young aspirants for the industrious, tenacious, determined seekers that they were.
And, he explained, he learned what he called the “importance of moments of revelation.” Far from home, some of them traveling alone, some with like-minded companions, having no French, sometimes little money, at risk in a great, populous European city in which disease, particularly cholera, threatened, they discovered that what was on offer in Paris was exactly what they had hoped to find there.
For instance, Charles Sumner’s moment occurred at the Sorbonne. At a lecture there, on January 20, 1838, Sumner, a polymath who became a senator from Massachusetts and a leading abolitionist, discovered that the audience included black students. Mr. McCullough explained that Sumner’s revelation, drawing upon the evidence that these students were “well received” by the professor and their student colleagues, was that, “It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education and does not exist in the nature of things.”
Twenty years later and back at home, Sumner became “one of the most eloquent and disputatious figures in American politics … He had argued for world peace, spoken out fearlessly against the Mexican War and slavery, and with little or no apparent concern over whom he offended.”
A cruel attack on the floor of the senate by a furious South Carolina congressman, an exponent of the slaveholding South, left Sumner badly damaged and led to the Pottawatomie Massacre by the Kansan John Brown and his men, an event that likely accelerated the onset of the Civil War.
Mr. McCullough said that he did most of the research and writing for “The Greater Journey” in the United States, apart from several short trips to Paris to “find out what I’d gotten wrong.” It was the United States where his subjects were from, where their letters to family and friends arrived from Paris, where their diaries and journals have been kept, and finally, where their triumphs in medicine, art, literature, education were later celebrated.
Mr. McCullough accompanied his talk with high-resolution enlargements of illustrations that are included in “The Greater Journey,” many of them of the pictures and sculptures that had been nurtured by their creators’ Paris years.
The West Tisbury Library Foundation, wtlibraryfoundation.org, sponsored the evening with David McCullough. The foundation accepts donations, which are tax-deductible.