the experience of being alive

To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.
– David McCullough

A snippet from David McCullough’s novel The Greater Journey Americans in Paris

They spoke of it then as the dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever.

They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers.  They were not embarking in any diplomatic or official capacity–not as had, say Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, in earlier days.  neither were they in the employ of a manufacturer or mercantile concern.  Only one, a young writer, appears to have been in anybody’s pay, and in his case it was a stipend from a New York newspaper. They did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland.  Nor should they be pictured as traveling for pleasure only, or in expectation of making some sort of social splash abroad.

They had other purposes–quite specific, serious pursuits in nearly every case.  Their hopes were high.  They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream–though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.”

They came from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Ohio, North Carolina, Louisiana, nearly all of the twenty-four states that then constituted their country.  With few exceptions, they were well educated and reasonably well of, or their parents were.  Most, though not all, were single men in their twenties, and of a variety of shapes and sizes.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, as an example, was a small, gentle, smiling Bostonian who looked even younger than his age, which was twenty-five.  His height, as he acknowledged good-naturedly, was five feet three inches “when standing in a pair of substantial boots.”  By contrast, his friend Charles Sumner, who was two years younger, stood a gaunt six feet two, and with his sonorous voice and serious brow appeared beyond his twenties.

A few, a half dozen or so, were older than the rest by ten years or more, and they included three who had already attained considerable reputation.  The works of James Fenimore Cooper, and especially The Last of the Mohicans, had made him the best-known American novelist ever.  Samuel F. B. Morse was an accomplished portrait painter.  Emma Willard, founder of Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, was the first woman to have taken a public stand for higher education for American women.


3 thoughts on “the experience of being alive

  1. From the book, a quote of Charles Sumner’s:

    “The thought of going abroad makes my heart leap. I feel, when I commune with myself about it, as when dwelling on the countenance and voice of a lovely girl. I am in love with Europa.”

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