On this week’s show, famed historian David McCullough joined me to talk about his latest book, "The Greater Journey," which looks back at the nineteenth century, a time when elite Americans went abroad in droves to study in France, which was then the cultural center of the world. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Fareed Zakaria: We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world. We think of America today and we don't care what's going on in the rest of the world. We don't want to borrow anything from the rest of the world. The Americans you're describing seemed fascinated by France. Why?
David McCullough: They craved, craved France, and they weren't anxious to go there because they were disenchanted with our country. They went to find out if the talent they had was really as strong as people were telling them, and in order to get the training, the experience that they could not get here. There were no museums with paintings hanging in them then. There was not one school of architecture in the United States. This is in the 1830s.
And no way to train as an artist to work in an atelier or to get the kind of training that one would need to be a sculpture or a painter. And Paris was the medical capital of the world. So they went for a multitude of – of professions and artistic careers.
If you were a foreign student in France, in Paris, you could go to the Sorbonne. You could go to the l'ecole de Medecine for nothing, free. Imagine if the students who were coming to Harvard or Yale or Stanford were coming here and going free. It was part of the policy of France at the time.
So if they could afford to support themselves - room and board - then they could go to these greatest of institutions. But American medical training, for example, was woefully behind. Most doctors in the United States in the 1830s, '40s, '50s, really right up through the Civil War had never been to medical school.
Fareed Zakaria: The Paris you describe is a place that is clearly the center of the world in a sense, and we forget now because the industrial revolution had just begun when - so you're describing the last gasp of the great agricultural revolutions, and France was probably the richest country in the world - and Paris certainly the center.
David McCullough: Well, what most people don't realize is that Paris was the cultural center of the world. And we had this city, New York, has became the cultural center of the world after World War II.
But Paris was also the center for medical education, medical science, science itself, technology. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands on an underwater foundation system called caissons, which was developed by French engineers in Paris. So the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling went to Paris to find out how they do it. And that's why he was able to do it.
And most Americans don't realize that, how much we owed to France.
Fareed Zakaria: I've got to just go on a tangent here for a second, because you wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. And here you are talking about the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge and what he borrowed from France. How does it stay that fresh in your mind?
David McCullough: To me the writing of the book is like an experience in life, you never – particularly if that's a powerful experience. You never forget it. And some subjects, once I've finished with them, that's it. I've gotten it out of my system. But with the Brooklyn Bridge, there's something about it, I'm still involved. My wife and I take a walk over the bridge every year. We go back and walk through the old neighborhood in Brooklyn where we lived when we were first married.
And I think it's one of the great accomplishments of our civilization. It's both a work of technology and a work of art, and it stands the test of time, both visually and technically. It's a magnificent production.
And it also rises up out of what was really a very corrupt time, much like our own. And the idea of this emblem of affirmation can rise up out of that sort of swamp of the gilded age is to me reassuring, and particularly in our time.
Fareed Zakaria: Our times, though, do seem more parochial. I mean, the people you discuss in the book, they seem so interested in the world and in intellectual currents in France, but elsewhere as well.
David McCullough: It wasn't cool to be cynical then. It wasn't cool to be filled with self pity. People often ask me when I'm starting a book, "What's your theme?" Particularly some of our academic friends. I have no idea what my theme is. I make up something to calm them down, but I have no idea. It's one of the reasons I'm writing the book.
And one of the themes that I realized is a theme as I was about halfway through this project is work. We receive such ballyhoo constantly about ease and happiness being synonymous. Again and again, people were saying on paper in their diaries and letters, I've never worked harder in my life and this is the happiest time of my life. And they're struggling as Augustus Saint- Gaudens, the sculptor said, we're struggling with all the realities of life, the mundane, every day chores of life, struggling to 'soar into the blue,' as he says. And I think that's emblematic of that generation.
Fareed Zakaria: Do you think that we have lost some of the optimism and energy that – that you saw in the 19th century?
David McCullough: Yes, temporarily. I'm a short range pessimist, long-range optimist. I think we'll get through these troubles. We've been through worse.
When the 9/11 happened, people said, "Oh, this is the worst thing we've ever been through. Yes, it was terrible." But by no means was it the worst we've ever been through. The Revolutionary War; the Civil War. Imagine 600,000 people killed. The influenza epidemic; the Great Depression. These were terrible times.
The dark – I think maybe the darkest time was right after Pearl Harbor. We had no army. Half our navy had been destroyed. The Russians – the Germans were nearly to Moscow. Britain was about finished and Churchill came across the Atlantic and he gave a speech and he said, 'We haven't gone this far because we're made of sugar candy." That's the message we need now.