Laboulaye’s novel

April 19, 2011

Laboulaye was known in France as a legal scholar and a member of the Institut de France, as well as an authority on the U.S. Constitution and American history. He established the first course of lectures on the U.S. at the Collège de France in Paris in 1849, and in the early 1860s he published a 3-volume history of the United States. Wanting to share his admiration of America’s form of government with a wider audience, Laboulaye decided to write a novel.

His story aimed to depict the benefits of individual political liberty to society. His lesson was a serious one, but Laboulaye clearly had fun with this tale. My favorite part is the opening section, which culminates in the narrator’s heroism his first day in America.

Paris in America starts with a séance in France one evening; the following morning the narrator wakes to find that he, together with his family and neighbors, has been transported to Massachusetts, “Paris, MA,” that is. After discovering the comforts of an American home (such as running water for one’s bath) and meeting his Americanized wife and children, he hears the calls of a fire. Aghast at the idea that he could be a volunteer fireman (“A singular idea,” the narrator exclaims, “to risk one’s own skin for strangers, when firemen might be hired!”), he is dressed and set on a truck to join his fellow fire fighters. To his surprise he dashes up a ladder, saves a child from a burning building, and becomes a hero — celebrated for one day, until other news captures the headlines the following morning. The story abounds with stereotypes and caricature but the humor in which it is written shines through and even Laboulaye’s mocking of social customs, particularly those of the French, are understood to be the criticisms of one who loves his country. It seems that people in both France and the U.S. enjoyed and appreciated this witty political novel. I have had leisure to look into Laboulaye’s “dream,” Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward said of the book, “and am infinitely pleased with its humor as well as its spirit.”

When Édouard Laboulaye, the Frenchman who shepherded the Statue of Liberty from idea into construction, wrote a novel about liberty in America, he drew on another experience recorded by Levasseur. Shortly after Lafayette’s arrival in New York in August 1824, a fire broke out a few blocks from where he and his companions were staying. Hearing the bells and the sound of fire trucks passing, Levasseur and George Lafayette rushed into the street to join the crowd headed toward the fire. Once there, the two Frenchmen watched the fire fighters in action and spoke with one of the police officers about their progress. Levasseur was duly impressed by the courageous firemen – volunteers, he learned – and by the order that prevailed among the onlookers, “without the aid of a single bayonet or uniform.” The experience led him to a favorable conclusion about a democratic society’s effect on its citizens: people maintain order and respect the law when they, as opposed to an authoritarian ruler, are the authors of their laws.

Édouard Laboulaye took this as a theme for his novel, Paris in America. And he used Levasseur’s story about courageous volunteer firemen as the basis for a lively scene in the opening section of his book.

Discovering Lafayette

February 28, 2011

I became fascinated with the Marquis de Lafayette when I began my research for Enlightening the World. To try to understand why the Statue of Liberty was conceived by a Frenchman and built by the French people (the statue portion of the monument, not the pedestal), I had to get a sense of the kinship they felt with Americans. In the 1860s, when Édouard Laboulaye mentioned the idea of a statue to guests at a dinner party at his home, it was common to refer to the tradition of friendship between the people of France and the United States. This special friendship had been established during the American War for Independence, and was symbolized by Lafayette.