Americans in Paris

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

Modes of Inquiry: Textual Analysis, Artistic Creation and Analysis, Historical, Social and Cultural Analysis

Course Description:

Paris has long been a destination for Americans seeking artistic shelter and inspiration as well as a welcoming space for writers and artists across race, gender, and sexualities. 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 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 were among the first wave, but almost all of them were unknown at the time. 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. These acts of academic and intellectual inquiry will mirror 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.