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05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

David McCullough: Discovering America in Paris

If some ambitious young writer ever decides to write a biography of America's premier historian and biographer, which I'm sure will happen some day, I have the perfect title. It's David McCullough: A Passion for American History.

The 76-year-old McCullough demonstrated to a Washington audience last week the distinctive approach to defining the American spirit and character that has made him one of the nation's most prolific and successful authors, one whose eight books have sold millions of copies and have never gone out of print, as he talked about his next book.

It's about Americans in Paris between the 1830's and 1930's. It doesn't have a title yet and he doesn't know when it will be finished even though he's two-thirds of the way through it. But rest assured, it's not going to be another book about Benjamin Franklin's diplomatic and amorous adventures in the French capital or Gertrude Stein's Lost Generation and Ernest Hemingway's Moveable Feast, dozens of which have been written, but about people most historians have forgotten about and Americans know little about.

Even more surprising, McCullough, who doesn't speak French, didn't spend much time in Paris digging through dusty archives, but did most of his research at the Library of Congress, which he calls "the greatest repository of knowledge in the world."

If that doesn't sound like a recipe for another best-seller by an author who's won two Pulitzer Prizes and more awards and honors than you can count, don't worry because his new book figures to tell us as much about what makes America tick as did his other books, ranging from his first in 1968, The Johnstown Flood, to his latest one about the year the United States was born, the aptly titled 1776.

Like his earlier books about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972) and the Panama Canal (1977), his biographies of young Teddy Roosevelt (1981) and Presidents Harry S. Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001) and a 1992 collection of historical essays, his Americans in Paris book follows his book-writing credo.

"People ask why write about Americans in Paris when so much has been written on the subject," McCullough told some 100 invited guests at a dinner at The Hay-Adams, the historic hotel across LaFayette Square from the White House that takes its name from two earlier residents of the site, John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Adams, a descendant of John Adams.

"I try to write books that I'd be interested in, whether somebody's written about it or not," he explained. "I like to write about people who lived interesting lives, about people who don't know how their lives are going to turn out."

For example, one of the people he writes about is Charles Sumner. "There's a statue in the Public Garden of Boston of Sumner," McCullough said. "But I doubt anybody in Boston knows who Sumner is. He went to Paris in 1837. He was completing Harvard undergrad and law school but decided he wasn't sufficiently educated and went to the Sorbonne, which foreign students could attend for nothing. He spoke hardly a word of French and plunging into the country's culture was infinitely difficult for him."

But Sumner, like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who taught anatomy at Harvard for 35 years after studying in Paris, was changed by the experience, as one everyone else McCullough writes about. "We are far, far more changed by France than most people know."

What happened to Sumner at the Sorbonne, McCullough asked his listeners. "He noticed that black students dressed and acted and were treated like the rest of the students. He wrote in his journal, "Maybe the way we treat black students is because of the way we are taught rather than the natural order of things." As a result, "he had this change of mind, change of heart. He came home determined to do something about it."

What he did was get elected to the U.S. Senate, where his bitter opposition to slavery earned him the enmity of his Southern colleagues. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina was so outraged by Sumner's tirade against a South Carolina senator and the practice of slavery that he attacked him with a cane on the Senate floor and almost killed him. "He hit him 30 times, one of the most horrible examples of violence in our legislative system," said McCullough. The incident helped trigger the Civil War.

Another person whose life was changed by living and working in Paris was George P. Healy, an Irish kid from Boston who studied under a French master in 1834. "You walk across the street to the White House and there are seven paintings by Healy," McCullough noted. And in the nearby Corcoran Gallery of Art is Healy's famous portrait of Lincoln without his trademark beard, as well as 17 other Healy paintings of people like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in the National Portrait Gallery.

To emphasize his view of how a book's opening page sets the book's tone, McCullough read from the opening page of his new book, quoting one of his protagonists, who wrote in his diary, "The thought of going abroad makes my heart leap." McCullough added, "Most of the people I write about were young and ambitious - painters, writers, architects, musicians, physicians. They spoke of [going abroad] as the chance of a lifetime."

One of these unheralded figures was Elihu Washburne. "He was one of 10 children from Maine, four of whom served in Congress at the same time, three in the House and one in the Senate, and all were reelected.' As a congressman from Galena, Illinois, he got to know both Lincoln and Grant, who appointed him his Secretary of State and later ambassador to France. "He was the only ambassador who stayed in Paris during the 1870 Revolution," said McCullough. "What he had was character."

It's the impact on their native country of such figures whose character was shaped in Paris that excites McCullough. Like sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose most famous work is the statue in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery called "Grief," which was commissioned by Henry Adams as a memorial to his late wife. And composers Cole Porter -- who spent a great deal of his life in Paris, Aaron Copeland and Henry Gershwin; writers like Edith Wharton, James Fenimore Cooper and Langston Hughes; painters like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassett, and cabaret singer and dancer Josephine Baker.

"All of them wouldn't be what they were if they hadn't lived in Paris," said McCullough, who perhaps unwittingly suggested a title for his book.

How about "If They Hadn't Lived in Paris"? He can have it, with my compliments. I can't wait to read it.