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One of the joys of writing a blog is that one gets given books to read and review.  Perfect.  If only I could get paid for it as well I’d be in heaven!  And my latest find, gifted by one only recently working in Washington, is by David McCullough a twice winner of the Pulitzer prize and biographer of the Adams’s, who has written a lovely gem of a book about a side of American literary and cultural life that had, by and large, passed me by.

As he says in a phrase that really should have been a gift to his publicity agent “At home it was known as the Old World but to them it was all new”. 

But who, when and where?

The where is easy, it is Paris, and the when is that marvellous period from 1830 through to 1900.

The who takes care of 460 pages with comprehensive notes following, and filled throughout by the great and the good of American life.  We find here the families of the old oligarchy, the Adams’s, Appleton who was the guy who really said that when good Americans die they go to Paris, painters like August Saint-Gauden, Mary Casselt and of course John Singer Sargent.  Writers were there too in their droves headed up by household names such as James Feniman Cooper, or Harriet Beecher Stowe who enthused that “I have come into a dreamland” (but her lesser known brother Charles is funnier).

Oliver Wendal Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, or Henry James they are all here in a glorious parade.

Official America is here too, in the shape of Elihu Washburne, the US Ambassador who saw the Franco-Prussian War, and the Commune and whose diaries are compellingly relived.  I have never read such a gripping account of this period of French history.

There are some lovely photos too, but if there are criticisms it might be that the whole is too large for easy handling and becomes somewhat unfocussed and loses its thread at times to become a random wander with the great and the good.  But McCullough is still erudite enough to maintain the pleasure.  It is a must read for anyone interested in nineteenth century American literary life.

If I have any real gripe about the book it is the production values.  If one saw the book in the shop it might put one off.  The cover is presumably meant to convey the sense of an artistic canvas of Paris – but just comes across as sludgy and the fore edges of the pages have not been guillotined straight, giving the book a raggedy ended strangely old fashioned appearance.  Don’t be put off!

Do Americans still influence the literary life of Paris?

Copyright David Macadam 2011

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