American in Paris

HON 398 – Dr. Donald Gagnon and Dr. Leslie Lindenauer

Course Description

Paris has long been a destination for Americans seeking artistic shelter and inspiration, a welcoming space for writers and artists across race, gender, and sexualities, and political support and affirmation of popularly constructed core democratic values. As David McCullough states in his work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, “Not all pioneers went west.” Some voyaged to Europe in search of, and returned home with, intellectual capital. In addition to well recorded visits to Paris by such American founding fathers as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the first Americans to land in France in the nineteenth century were an eclectic group; medical students, artists, and writers. They were also very talented. Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Fennimore Cooper counted among the first wave, but at that time, almost all of them were unknown. They went to Paris to “study hard” as the painter George Healy stated. Even Cooper, already famous for his novel The Last of the Mohicans, shared his cohorts’ emphasis on work; he wrote eight novels during his seven years abroad. The U.S. was better for their efforts; for example, it was alongside black students at the Sorbonne that Sumner first discerned the inconsistencies undergirding America’s racial system. As he recorded in his journal in January 1838, “The distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.” It is this “nature of things,” on a broader cultural, historical, political and artistic canvas, that we hope to explore in this course, echoing in academic and intellectual inquiry what George Gershwin hoped to explore in his seminal composition, An American in Paris: "My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere." Our “impressions” will focus on the lasting impact of American/Parisian social and cultural contact, beginning with our early political alliances and morphing through various intentional and unintentional phenomena to a lasting, if sometimes uneasy, relationship.