Boston’s French Accent
Sure, we’re in New England — but a surprising number of our greatest figures were inspired by the French.
Historian David McCullough is well known for his epic works on Bostonians who changed the world (see John Adams and 1776). His latest book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, out May 24, offers more of the same, but with a twist. This time, McCullough follows a group of 19th-century Americans to France, and argues that what they learned there profoundly influenced America. The book, of course, is filled with locals who, upon returning home, went on to transform Boston. We talked with McCullough to build this handy guide to which hometown character did what.
In 1838, Sumner enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he studied alongside black pupils. McCullough says the experience caused Sumner to realize that the American racial hierarchy “was something we learned and not in the natural order of things.” This epiphany led Sumner to the U.S. Senate, where he advocated for abolition. “Except for Lincoln,” McCullough says, “no other voice in Washington was so powerful in the years leading to the Civil War and during it.”
Though not a native Bostonian, this master sculptor affected our city more than perhaps any other artist. Saint-Gaudens returned from Paris to play a large role in designing Trinity Church, but his biggest contribution was the relief for the Shaw Memorial, opposite the State House. “It is the first great American work of art to depict African Americans as heroes,” McCullough says. “He considered that his most important piece of all, and it was.”
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES SR.
Holmes revolutionized American medicine by teaching his students at Harvard Medical School what he’d learned about anatomy in Paris. Previously, McCullough says, American medicine was “very primitive.” But in Paris, using cadavers to study anatomy was the norm. Thanks to his training there, Holmes saved countless Americans from surgery by doctors who otherwise would have had no idea what they were cutting into.
Here’s a painter, McCullough notes, who “should be — and I hope will be — much better known than he is.” According to the author, seven Healy pieces hang in the White House, and 17 are in the National Portrait Gallery. When the Boston-born artist — “an Irish kid off the streets” — set sail for Paris, he had virtually no money and barely spoke French, but there were no art schools or museums at the time in America for him to develop his talent. He returned a master.