Around the time the book was published, I saw McCullough giving an interview on American TV. With his usual charm and eloquence, he noted the role of the French in the founding of our country, especially of Rochambeau's army at Yorktown, which he called greater than Washington's. Then he said something that made me run for the nearest pen and piece of scratch paper. I was repeating his words aloud as I went so as not to forget them, so I hope I caught them properly. Regardless, I think I captured the spirit of his remarks. Here they are as I scribbled them down:
"The French connection is much greater than we realize...History is much more than just armies and politicians. To me, Mark Twain, Willa Cather [and other writers whose names I did not get down] are as important to who we are as anyone else--and that should be included [in historical accounts]."
I think he's right on both counts: the French role is often undervalued in the American portfolio, as our stock brokers would have it, and history is driven by culture not just events. Yet McCullough doesn't comment on the discrepancy when it comes to Twain and the French. Yes, the French played an important part in American history, and so in his way did Twain--but don't expect the latter to have hailed the former!
A few months ago, by coincidence, I met McCullough at a college writing conference at Dartmouth College, where he was giving a brief talk about writing history. Afterwards, I went up and shook his hand and told him about my Fulbright project on Twain and France. He immediately directed me--without needing to recall or refer to anything--to the hotel where Twain had stayed on his first trip to Paris: "You must go to the Grand Hotel du Louvre!"
I said I'd be here for six months and would be renting an apartment for myself and my family.
"Well, just go for a night anyway," he suggested.
I took McCullough's word for it, of course (he being the eminent historian), but just to double check, I looked up in The Innocents Abroad where Twain and the other American tourists aboard The Quaker City in Paris. There it is, at the end of Chapter 12, in a passage that begins auspiciously but soon devolves into a complaint. Shades of Francophobia to come:
To close our first day in Paris cheerfully and pleasantly, we now sought our grand room in the Grand Hotel du Louvre and climbed into our sumptuous bed to read and smoke--but alas!
It was pitiful
In a whole city-full,
Gas we had none.
No gas to read by--nothing but dismal candles. It was a shame. We tried to map out excursions for the morrow; we puzzled over French "guides to Paris"; we talked disjointedly in a vain endeavor to make head or tail of the wild chaos of the day's sights and experiences; we subsided to indolent smoking; we gaped and yawned and stretched--then feebly wondered if we were really and truly in renowned Paris, and drifted drowsily away into that vast mysterious void that men call sleep.
Maybe that unhappy review still accounts, some century and a half later, for the fact that the hotel fails to mention Twain in its own story of its history. Freud, yes. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, yes. Camille Pissarro, yes. But no marking of Twain in the description on its website of "a true Parisian hotel."
Still, one of these nights I think I'll try to take McCullough's advice and spring for a room there--then see if the management has any record of Twain's complaint.