JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, on this Bastille Day, the national day in France, Jeffrey Brown talks with author David McCullough about the French influence on American life dating back to the 19th century.
JEFFREY BROWN: Through his nine books, the historian David McCullough has been painting a portrait of America, from early works on the Johnstown flood and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to his two Pulitzer Prize-winning books on sometimes overlooked Presidents Harry Truman and John Adams.
In his new book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” McCullough turns to the development of American culture, as artists and thinkers such as the painter Mary Cassatt, the future Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, who studied at the Sorbonne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., then a young medical student, and so many others experienced Paris in the 19th century.
We considered going to Paris for the interview, but settled instead for meeting at the lovely Bistrot Du Coin in Washington, D.C., where I started by asking McCullough why he was drawn to this particular time and place.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris”: Here was this big period between 1830 and 1900, about which very little had been done, filled with wonderful characters, important characters in a variety of fields, who were changed by Paris, and, consequently, when they came home, or what they brought home changed America, changed our story.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the first chapter, you write, not all pioneers went West. It’s a kind of theme for this book.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, it is.
JEFFREY BROWN: In what way, though, were these people pioneers? And what were they seeking?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Well, we talk about pioneers in science or pioneers in medicine. And some of them were literally pioneers in medicine, because they went there to study.
Paris was the medical capital of the world. Our medical training was woefully behind. And this was a chance to perfect their skills and their profession, but also to come back and teach what they had learned, which almost all of them did.
And the others were pioneers in launching into careers for which there was no training available here. There were no schools of architecture. There were no schools of art. There were no museums where you could go and look at paintings. It’s hard to believe that, but that’s how it was.
It was the cultural capital of the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: And it was also a way to find out if they were any good, to measure…
JEFFREY BROWN: … measure yourself.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: … to measure up, exactly…
JEFFREY BROWN: Ah.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: … and to get the training that they knew was essential to be very good.
And it worked. And it worked for some very important people, like Mary Cassatt, like John Singer Sargent in painting. It certainly worked for architects, the work of Richard Morris Hunt, who changed the look of much of our urban landscape, H.H. Richardson, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White, Louis Sullivan. These were people who created American — the American look.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s across a wide range.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: It’s across a very wide range. People don’t realize to what degree we are affected by — by the French and by French history.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of your characters, John Sanderson, has the line, “The French dine to gratify.” I can’t resist this since we’re sitting in a French restaurant.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: “The French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite.”
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I love it.
JEFFREY BROWN: So they learned something a little bit about living, right?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Oh, you bet they did. Exactly. Exactly.
And it’s interesting, because the doctors who came back would tell their students — and one of them tells his son in a wonderful quotation — don’t just go there to study medicine. Go there to study human nature, what it is to be a human being.
And this is an issue in medicine still today: Am I treating a disease or am I treating a patient?
JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of famous names and people move through the story. Was there someone who surprised you or grabbed in a way you hadn’t expected?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, several, including some who were minor characters, but also some major characters.
Among the majors would be George Healy, who was a young Irish boy from Boston, street kid who had talent to draw and paint, and who knew no one in France, knew no French, had no money, but he went because he was determined to “make the best I could be,” as he said.
And I loved his line. He said, “I had a great stock of courage and of inexperience.”
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: He said that too could be a big help.
JEFFREY BROWN: Self-awareness, right?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: And there are now seven Healy portraits hanging in our White House here. There are 17 Healy portraits in the National Portrait Gallery.
He became one of the most prominent portrait painters ever, and certainly the most prominent portrait painter of his time.
JEFFREY BROWN: The art of finding or digging through archives for material, is it an art? What have you learned after all these years of — of looking for material?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I guess I have never been involved with a project where something didn’t turn up new, never.
JEFFREY BROWN: Never?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: And I — never. And you think, oh, that’s been gone over again and again, where you aren’t going to find anything. Oh, yes, you do.
And you find it in surprising places.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you have to know how to — you have to know how to dig or look.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Well, you also have to keep an open mind, because often you find it in a person, somebody who has something say.
When I was working on my Truman book, I interviewed one of his Secret Service guards. And at the end of the interview, I said — I thanked him very much, because he really gave me a lot of time, and it was infinitely interesting and valuable.
And I thanked him. And I said, particularly when I think about how many times you must have been asked these questions.
He said, “Mr. McCullough, I have never been asked these questions.”
You have to be sure you don’t let appearances lead you to wrong conclusions about people and about where things are.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it’s interesting to me that — that, having looked and written so much about the political development of our country, here you are focusing on the cultural development. Was that a conscious thing for you, that you wanted to — you wanted — that interested you…
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, very much so.
I have felt for a very long time that history is more than politics and the military and social issues. Yes, it is politics and the military and social issues, but it’s also art and music and architecture and ideas and science and medicine. It’s the works. It’s human.
And I think that the more that we teach history that way, the more we think about history that way, the more we realize that’s obviously true. There are some ancient civilizations, all we know about them is their art. So, what may stand down the next several hundred years may be more George Gershwin than it is some senator of the moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: I understand that you yourself wanted to be a painter early on and studied…
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I still do.
JEFFREY BROWN: You still do?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I still do. I paint all the time. I love it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You do?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, I do, indeed.
And I highly recommend it to everyone. Get out there and paint. It’s good for the soul. But I also particularly stress to people who say they want to become writers, young people, to take a course in drawing or painting, because it helps you to learn to see, to look. And that’s what writing is often about.
JEFFREY BROWN: One last thing. This Paris of the 19th century that you are writing about, if you had the chance, if a time machine existed, and you had a chance to live somewhere else, would you consider Paris in this time?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: It would depend for how long.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I would get homesick after a month or so.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Acutely homesick.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: And that was true of them, too. They all came home saying, I’m a better patriot now than I ever was, without….
JEFFREY BROWN: Really, a better American…
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, and proud — proudly so.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor, came home and said — he said, I’m — I never realized how much of an American I am until I had my time in Paris.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David McCullough, nice to talk to you.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Thank you very much.