In this Time Magazine interview historian David McCullough talks about his new book The Greater Journey and how the French influenced a generation of ambitious Americans.
Watch the interview and say whether the statements below are true or false.
1. The period David McCullough has written about in his book is most of the 19th century.
2. The people David McCullough writes about are politicians and high officials in the administration.
3. Augustus Saint Gaudens worked as a shoemaker.
4. The schools of art and architecture in Paris were far better than those in US.
5. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph.
6. Charles Sumner was an advocate for abolitionism.
7. David McCullough is currently working for the US Information Agency in Washington.
Hi, I’m Belinda Luscombe. I’m an editor at large at Time Magazine. Today’s 10 Questions answerer is David McCullough, the author of nine books. His newest is called The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Thank you so much for being here.
Now your new book is about a bunch of Americans who moved to Paris and they were a mix of professions, largely artists and writers. The effect it had on them and thus, I guess, the effect it had on America, it seems like a sort of strange subject considering our history. What made you think of it?
Well, I’m drawn to it because the big period of the experience of Americans in Europe and in Paris in particular about which very little had been done. And it’s the period of 1830’s and 1900. We know a good deal about the time when Franklin Adams and Jefferson were all in Paris and we’ve heard more than a great deal about the 1920’s and 30’s, the Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein time. And my feeling was that this period brought to France for a very specific kind of ambition a group of Americans who in many ways are among the most interesting and important figures in American life in that span of time. I also feel very strongly that history ought to been seen as a great deal more than just politics and the military and this was a chance for me to illustrate that with the lives of these individual people.
Who was your favourite character from the book?
Augustus Saint Gaudens is one of my favourite characters that I’ve ever written about in my writing life. Infinitely interesting man. Complicated. Immensely talented and important. An immigrant shoemaker’s son who was put to work at age 13. Street kid here in New York, who felt he had talent that could be, could be something. And he, and he was determined to excel. They all were in that period ambitious to excel, I think it’s the common ingredient in the outlook of these young people. Remember there were no schools of art, no art museums here, no schools of architecture. If you wanted to become an architect, there was no place you could study architecture, so you went to Paris.
Samuel Morse, he was one of the guys that fascinated me. How did he go from portrait painter when he went to Paris to the guy who invented like the single line telegraphs and the code?
Well, I don’t think in that day people saw that they had to necessarily belong to one category. The fact that Morse was a painter and a very gifted painter, a brilliant painter, did not mean that he couldn’t have other ideas. And while he was in Paris he got the idea for the telegraph. Now a man like Charles Sumner brought back another kind of an idea. He brought back the realization for him that we, in America, treated black people the way we did largely because of what we’d been taught, that treating black people as equals was part of the natural order of things because he saw it demonstrated in how the French students treated black students at the Sorbonne, where he was taking courses of all kinds. And that, that changed our history because Sumner, who was only a young lawyer then, decided to devote his life to politics and to the abolitionist movement, became the most powerful voice for abolition in the United States Senate. So if that, if the book were about that one man’s one experience in Paris and how it mushroomed him into a larger effect on the country, that would have made the point. But I wanted to make the point in a variety of ways because I believe so strongly that history is more than just soldiers and politicians.
Do you ever wish you stayed at Sports Illustrated?
No, I loved being in Time Inc. I worked at Architectural Forum, which is no longer being published, and I worked at Time. I worked at three different places. I got wonderful training, made great friends. I learned a lot about writing, learned a lot about self-editing, which is the real point of it all, learning to edit yourself. But I was ready to move on and when President Kennedy was elected and he called on people to do something for their country, I took it very much to heart and went to Washington to work with the US Information Agency under Edward R. Murrow and that was very exciting. And I learned a great deal there of a different kind.
Now from the point of view of the present, we look back, we look at history and we think, you know, often in a sort of childlike way how could people have possibly owned slaves, how could that happen. [Yes.] What was the thing? How could we have thought it was okay to not educate with it. [Yes.] What do you think? Our… the people that will come after us will look back and say, how, what where they thinking? How could they have done this?
How could they spent so much time of their lives sitting, watching television. You mean, they spend seven hours a day watching that? That is a really good answer, it’s not what I was expecting. David McCullough, thank you so much for coming and seeing us today.
Thank you very much. I’ve hugely enjoyed it. I truly have. Thank you.
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