Author inspired by America's French connection

Historian David McCullough takes a sharp turn with his newest book, about ex-pat Americans in 19th-century Paris.

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Historian and author David McCullough poses with art by George Catlin, one of the artists featured in his new book, "The Greater Journey," at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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One of historian David McCullough's favorite John Singer Sargent paintings hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight" depicts a fashionable Parisian couple strolling through a park in 1879, under a luminous moon.

"It really knocked me for a loop. I thought it was fabulous," said McCullough.

Sargent makes an appearance -- along with other Americans who worked and studied in 19th-century Paris -- in McCullough's new book, "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris," released last month.

Among them are Elihu Washburne, a former Illinois congressman named U.S. minister to France just before the Franco-Prussian War erupted. McCullough said that the discovery of Washburne's Paris diary by his researcher Mike Hill breaks historical ground, calling it "the biggest lucky strike of my writing life."

Washburne gives the book a Minnesota tie-in: His brothers Cadwallader and William Washburn (Elihu added an e to the name to spell it like the British) started milling companies in Minneapolis that eventually became General Mills and Pillsbury. The book notes that William also was a founder of the Minneapolis Tribune.

McCullough, who will speak Tuesday in Wayzata, talked with the Star Tribune about a book that's markedly different from the other histories and biographies he's published in his celebrated writing career.

Q Do you enjoy talking to people about your work?

A I do. I love it. I enjoy being with people; I enjoy seeing our country. I have friends almost everywhere we're going to be stopping, so I look forward to it very much.

Q Outside of military history, I don't recall reading many books about Americans that don't actually take place in America.

A I loved the idea of telling part of the American story that didn't take place here, and a part of the story that wasn't about the military or some disaster afar. Here was this big span of 70 years, from 1830 to 1900, where there were marvelous stories about infinitely interesting and important people that had been largely overlooked. To discover these marvelous, brave people who were willing to go through the ordeal of the [ocean] crossing and the struggle to learn a language they didn't speak, in order to excel in their ambitions professionally, to me was a subject that I wanted to write. I've never had a better time writing a book than I have this one.

Q This was just a very good excuse to spend as much time as possible in Paris, wasn't it?

A Yes and no. My wife, Rosalee, and I first went to Paris 50 years ago this spring and we love it, but we've spent more time working there than for just pleasure. We really haven't spent that much time over the four years that it took to write the book. We've been going back every year but mainly just to walk the walk and make sure I got things right. But the research is almost entirely here in the United States -- 95 percent of it, I would say, in libraries and great archival collections at universities.

Q You've written famously about presidents, generals, great engineers. The people in this book are artists, writers, doctors.

A To think of history as just politics and the military and some social issues is important, to be sure, but it isn't everything. Some ancient civilizations, most of what we know about them is in their art and their architecture. I've always, since I was in grade school, been very interested in art. And I've long been extremely interested in architecture, music and literature.

The French connection, if you will, is of greater importance to the American story than most Americans appreciate. How about the fact that our capital was designed by a Frenchman? How about the fact that our country was doubled when Napoleon decided he wanted to sell the Louisiana Territory? How about the fact that the emblematic welcome that people arriving in our greatest seaport in New York receive is a gift from France? Not to mention all the cities, towns, rivers, colleges, universities on the map that all have French names.

Q The motto for the state of Minnesota is L'Etoile du Nord.

A Thank you very much!

Q What have you brought back from Paris that has shaped your own thinking and work?

A The slowing down to enjoy the pleasures of the senses -- smell, sight, sound, taste. And I think, too, the very thing that so influenced those Americans of that other day, what Charles Sumner called the prestige of age. To think how long this has been this way, how old that building is, how respectful of the past it is not to destroy everything just because it's old.

And the other thing I think that one is reminded of emphatically by Paris, is what humankind is capable of creating that makes the city so appealing, so beautiful.

Q Your next book?

A I have no idea. Well, that's not true. I have several ideas, but I don't know yet what I will be doing. I really don't know what causes me to decide on a book. Just something suddenly clicks. I'll just feel, yup, that's it. I'm going to go; I'm goig to do it.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

  • DAVID MCCULLOUGH

    Where: Wayzata Community Church, 125 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata.

    When: 7 p.m. Tue.

    Tickets: $20, redeemable for $20 off the purchase price of his book. Contact the Bookcase of Wayzata, 607 E. Lake St., Wayzata, 952-473-8341.

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