There was a time, between the deadly struggles of the French and Indian wars and the days of freedom fries and surrender monkeys, when Americans reserved their greatest foreign admiration and respect for the French. Between the Marquis de Lafayette’s timely aid in the Revolutionary War and the gift of the Statute of Liberty, Americans poured into Paris seeking what they could not find at home: advanced training in painting, science, medicine and the art of living. Frenchmen came west too, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville and King Louis-Philippe, who probably saw more of the U.S. during his years of exile there—he once worked as a waiter in a Boston oyster bar—than most of the Americans he made welcome in France during his reign (1830 to 1848).
But it’s the traffic from his country to France that animates McCullough, 77, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, in his beautifully told story. He’s assembled a remarkable cast. Among the 700 American medical students who studied in Paris between 1830 and 1860—an era in which American doctors were not legally required to have advanced training—was Elizabeth Blackwell, who studied obstetrics and gynecology, both ignored at home since American doctors were not in the habit of giving female patients “intimate” examinations. She came home to found a New York hospital entirely run by women. Artists included James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse, who flourished as a painter before picking up in France an odd idea that he later turned into the telegraph.
Most of them also managed to enjoy what Cooper called “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.” On a grander scale, dozens came back to the U.S. with ideas for the parks and museums that would transform the cities of the Eastern seaboard, while a few recorded transformations in their personal, including sexual, lives. Side benefits, McCullough notes, for the eastbound travellers who transformed their nation as much as its westward pioneers.