Americans in Paris, part I

Abigail Adams was nearly 40 years old when she first saw Paris. It was 1784. Her husband had helped negotiate a peace treaty — the Treaty of Paris — the previous year. He was still in Europe, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to help secure commercial treaties with the new United States. When Abigail met up with John in London, prior to their journey to France, they had been separated for close to five years.

Her encounter with Paris came through the lens of what she had read, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy in particular, a racy choice, perhaps, for someone with Abigail’s Puritan streak. When Sterne’s narrator first arrives in Paris, for example, he exclaims to himself:

Alas, poor Yorick! cried I, what art thou doing here? On the very first onset of all this glittering clatter thou art reduced to an atom; — seek, — seek some winding alley, with a tourniquet at the end of it, where chariot never rolled or flambeau shot its rays; — there thou mayest solace thy soul in converse sweet with some kind grisette of a barber’s wife, and get into such coteries! —

Instead of a winding alley — not to mention such relations with kind grisettes of barbers’ wives — Abigail and John set up house in the suburbs, four miles from Paris. She had to hire more than half a dozen servants in addition to the two she had brought with her, because the French help, she said, was so much lazier than in New England. Notwithstanding her initial disdain for Paris, she delighted in writing home about the city, which was home to half a million people, in contrast to Boston’s 15,000 or so. The people of Paris were dirty; and though she hadn’t yet seen all of the city, she wrote to one friend back in Massachusetts, “One thing I know, & that is, that I have smelt it.” (It was August, after all.)

Five years earlier, her husband had written to her with more enthusiasm:

To take a Walk in the Gardens of the Palace of the Tuilleries, and describe the Statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient Divinities and Heroes are represented with exquisite Art, would be a very pleasant Amusement, and instructive Entertainment, improving in History, Mythology, Poetry, as well as in Statuary. Another Walk in the Gardens of Versailles, would be usefull and agreable. But to observe these Objects with Taste and describe them so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly Spare.

What Abigail noticed in the gardens, though, were the prostitutes. She wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren:

What idea, my dear madame, can you form of the manners of a nation, one city of which furnishes (blush oh, my sex, when I name it) 52,000 unmarried females so lost to a sense of honor and shame as publicly to enroll their names in a notary office for the most abandoned purposes and to commit iniquity with impunity. Thousands of these miserable wretches perish annually with disease and poverty, whilst the most sacred of institutions is prostituted to unite titles and estates.

Her reactions — the lens of Sterne notwithstanding — were Yankee reactions. Other American contemporaries had similar responses, all focusing their chief attention on the ways in which monarchical and aristocratic society had built magnificent, even dazzling, structures by exploiting the labor and rights of common people. They were simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the city, equal parts grandeur and squalor. “We are in a narrow, dirty street,” wrote another American, Ruth Barlow, a few years later, “surrounded by high houses and can scarcely see the light of the sun.” She was there with her husband, who had come to France to sell land in Ohio to French emigrants in an effort to relieve America’s wartime debt. She was writing to the wife of Timothy Dwight, who would later become the president of Yale and nicknamed the Pope of Connecticut:

The noise, folly & bustle with which I am surrounded almost distracts me. We have no sabath, it is looked upon as a day of amusement entirely. Tho they work nearly as much on that day as on any other, yet they have mass said every sabath in their churches & many of them are doubtless sincere, and I believe really good folk.

The positive turn in Ruth’s final phrase anticipated a bittersweet and longstanding love affair with the city, where she would spend much of the second half of her life. It would be another decade before she returned to the U.S., and she would come again to Paris during the War of 1812, while her husband, Joel, tried to keep America on Napoleon’s good side.

My trip to Paris a few weeks ago was filtered as much through the experiences of these Americans, two hundred years ago, as theirs was through the writing of Sterne and others like him. My experience was, though, for the most part, more positive. It was my first time there; at age 37 I’m way behind a lot of my friends, but I beat Abigail by three years. No matter where I went, I couldn’t help but think of Abigail and John and Joel and Ruth. (When I walked through the Tuilleries, all I could think of were John’s descriptions of the statues and Abigail’s of the prostitutes; when I went to the Louvre, all I could think was: Napoleon lived here.)

I couldn’t help but think, too, of Ben Franklin, who made a neat fortune in Paris in the 1780s by marketing his own Americanness, when the rage for the American Revolution ran high. Like Adams, he was there to negotiate an end to the war. He staid on as minister to France from the new nation. An international celebrity already, he was a favorite in Paris intellectual circles and in popular culture. He had cheap reproductions of his portrait made — a portrait in which he wore a beaver skin cap:

ben in beaver

The caps themselves sold like mad, and reproductions of this image were everywhere; everyone had one. It was emblazoned on everything from snuff boxes to silver medallions. Elite Parisian women began wearing their hair in imitation of the cap.  

Adams, who disliked and resented Franklin more the older he got, grumbled about the degree to which Franklin embraced and was embraced by French culture. As his biographer, David McCullough, writes, Adams realized over time that Franklin’s French wasn’t all that good:

Never verbose in social gatherings even in his own language, ‘the good doctor’ sat in the salons of Paris, looking on benevolently, a glass of champagne in hand, rarely saying anything. When he did speak in French, he was, one official told Adams, almost impossible to understand. He refused to bother his head with French grammar, Franklin admitted to Adams, and to his French admirers, this, with his odd pronunciation, were but another part of his charm, which only added to Adams’s annoyance. Try as he might, Adams could never feel at ease in French society. Franklin, always at ease, never gave the appearance of trying at all.

We were in Paris on the second leg of a trip precipitated by my daughter’s prize-winning art contest entry. It just happened that our friend Slade had swapped out her apartment in DUMBO and her country house in the Berkshires for two apartments in Paris — enough room for her and half a dozen friends.

With no French in my system, I felt a little like John and Abigail, not so much in terms of their righteous indignation about the victims of monarchical culture (though I have to admit I couldn’t help feeling a republican twinge — small r — at the sight of buildings that had been constructed at the cost of so much exploited labor) as a sheer sense of overwhelmedness in the face of a city so much older and more historically rich than the one I live in. If I identified with the Adamses, I couldn’t help, too, thinking of Slade as somewhat Franklinian. Whether or not he got the grammar down, Franklin, to the French, was the quintessential revolutionary — the deliverer of revolution.

ladies’ man

Watch out, Paris. Slade’s on a roll, and the revolution will be blogged.

7 responses to “Americans in Paris, part I”

  1. Scotty says:

    I have to admit an old-standing fascination with J. Adams. Anyone whe seems to have been so humorless is someone who I imagine to be filled with a constant internal comedy monologue, running like a tickertape.

    This only makes me love him more: “…Franklin admitted to Adams, and to his French admirers, this, with his odd pronunciation, were but another part of his charm, which only added to Adams’s annoyance. ”

    I love imagining the Waterman clan strolling the streets of Paris. I look forward to more in Pt. II.

  2. Missy says:

    That Slade, she does the most amazing things. I hope this is just chapter one. Loved the contextualization. Now I want to hear some specifics about your trip. What was your favorite neighborhood? What did you eat? More, please!

  3. Missy says:

    I’m such an idiot. Of course this is just part one. Sorry for not being a good close reader. I hope you saw the Wreck of the Medusa in the Giant Painting wing of the Louvre. It’s my favorite, in part because it scares me.

  4. I’ll try to tie in a bit more of our own stuff in the second half; truth be told, though, three days simply wasn’t enough. I can’t really speak to the level of favorite neighborhoods and restaurants, etc. I feel like we made the equivalent of a trip to New York where all you do is Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. But I do know I want to go back asap & I’m scheming for a way to stay longer term. — at some point in my life I’ll spend a year there! who knows when, but it certainly would be great.

    Scotty: I have a real soft spot for the whole Adams clan, especially John and Abigail. His sense of humor is there; it comes out most clearly, though, when he waxes sarcastic. One of my favorite bits from him was written in a letter to a friend right before Franklin died: “The history of our Revolution,” he ranted, “will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod, smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod–and thenceforward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.”

    He also has some seriously funny stuff in his autobiography about rooming with Franklin in New Jersey while they were traveling together during the Revolution: They couldn’t agree on whether to sleep with the window open or closed. Franklin wanted it open, and so “began an harangue, upon Air and Cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep,” Adams wrote, “and left him and his Philosophy together.”

    The owners of the apartment we were staying in had a copy of the McCullough Adams biography and it was fun to read the Paris chapters while we were there. Nerdy, maybe, but I kind of like thinking of myself as part of a chain of travelers who’ve been visiting the same places for hundreds of years.

  5. Dave says:

    I like this idea of visiting places through the texts of previous visitors. I now can’t think of the Louvre without thinking of the scene in Godard’s Bande à part where the kids run though the entire place holding hands.

  6. Kate the Great says:

    I love that last McCullough quote. I think I would have loved to know Franklin, and yet, I think, once I did know him, I’d always feel an undercurrent of annoyance toward the guy. Perhaps I’d be one of those people who laughs lightly at his antics from far away, but never deems to be within his intimate circle of friends.

  7. hey scotty and anyone else interested in these founding freaks:

    my friend jill has a fun piece on adams, jefferson, and the election of 1800 (which jefferson considered a second american revolution) in today’s new yorker. here’s the link.