Tag Archives: france

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough


I liked McCullough’s account of the Wright brothers a lot, but fact-wise did not get too much out of it since all of this ground had been covered in my previously-read To Conquer The Air.

One new facet that struck me on this reading of the story is how determined Wilbur was to not fly until everything was ready, no matter what/who was pressuring them.  Multiple times in France and later famously at Ft. Myers near Washington, DC, many thousands of onlookers, dignitaries, and even royalty gathered hoping to see a flight, only to wait all day and be disappointed when Wilbur judged the weather or the airplane not quite right yet.  The mechanics assigned to help Wilbur with the Flyer in Le Mans were amazed how he insisted on inspecting and doing much of the work himself.  Very high standards in this regard led to a remarkable safety record for the Wrights.  The one major accident, where Orville crashed and Lt. Selfridge was killed, took place while Wilbur was away in France…I wonder if Orville let the crowds pressure him more than Wilbur did, and thus he failed to notice a crack or weakening of the propeller which eventually broke in mid-air.

Once again, I am amazed how nobody believed that they were really flying despite numerous eyewitnesses at Huffman Prairie.  I guess it gave all the more wonder and glory when they finally showed the world nearly simultaneously at Le Mans in France (Wilbur) and Ft. Myers in the US (Orville).

I think it would be fun to do a Wright Brothers-focused tour someday – Dayton, Kitty Hawk, Ft. Myers, maybe New York; then Le Mans and Pau in France followed perhaps by Rome and Berlin.

Wilbur’s early death at age 45 in 1912 from typhoid fever is sad … but at the same time, it seemed like his work was complete – the world knew flight was possible and the new age of aviation had begun – and thus the main actor freely exited stage left with characteristic humility.

“The Greater Journey” by David McCullough


I would have been bored to tears with this one if it wasn’t for McCullough’s great writing style.  As it is, that barely made it tolerable … almost completely uninteresting subject matter as far as I am concerned.  A bunch of Americans spent time studying or making art in Paris.  There’s not much tying all their random experiences together.  Kind of a unique take on history – the story of a single city from the perspective of a single class of individual.  But anyway, I didn’t really enjoy it nearly as much as McCullough’s other books.  Didn’t really see the point.

There are some items of interest, however.  One is Samuel Morse, of telegraph fame.  He was an accomplished painter, working in Paris.  He became inspired by the French semaphor flag telegraphy relay system and figured out how to make it work with an electric line.  Right there is one benefit of travel and seeing different ways of doing things.  (Sidenote on “diversity” — I think the diversity that is important and needed is such diversity of ideas, not necessarily of race or other classifications.)  But then again, I also think the world is much smaller now that it used to be, and becoming more homogenous by the day.  Is there anything to be gained from travel in 2015 as there was in 1815?  Is it all just a bunch of tourist traps?

Second interesting bit was about the heroics of Elihu Washburne during the Prussian Siege and the Commune.  Not fun times to be in Paris, but Washburne served his role as American diplomat with courage and honor.

“The Days of the French Revolution” by Christopher Hibbert


This book was pretty much exactly what I was looking for – a broad overview of the French Revolution, just what I needed to give a solid grounding of this important period in French history.  Definitely only recommended if you are specifically interested in the period, though.  And it gets kind of hard to follow towards the end due to the large number of various competing groups and historical figures, but I think that is more a result of the absolute chaos of the period rather than any deficiency in the textual account.

The French Revolution was a tragedy.  By that I do not mean that the old feudal order of Europe should not have fallen — it had to give sometime, somewhere.  The commoners had valid claims of injustice; they saw vast inequality in the nation, with relatively few nobles and the church on top and everyone else (the “Third Estate“) on the bottom.  The Revolution began essentially as a demand for a more fair accounting.  The tragedy is that the lofty ideals of freedom, liberty, and fraternity espoused by the Revolutionaries were so soon twisted into violence, brutality, purges, and the guillotine.

[Aside: 99 percenters today claim a similar situation to the peasants of medieval France – could they drag us down into a Revolution?  Discuss.  I think not; at least today pretty much everyone has enough to eat…]

Worst of all was the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, mainly associated with Robespierre.  The Law of 22 Prairial is a horrific joke: “greatly increased the numbers of those who could be regarded as ‘public enemies’ and expedited the processes by which they could be condemned to death – the only punishment now to be inflicted – by the Revolutionary Tribunal.  Defence lawyers were dispensed with; so were witnesses unless ‘the formality’ of calling them was considered ‘necessary to discover accomplices or for other important considerations of public interest.'”  Basically, you were guilty if you were brought before the Tribunal, and you could be called up if someone in power didn’t like you or if enough people started rumors.  There are a lot of examples in the book of horrible things that happened during the Terror, like a woman who was guillotined because she wept during her husband’s execution – obviously a sign of anti-revolutionary sentiment within her as well!  Reminds me of some of the books I’ve read about China’s Cultural Revolution.  But the French one seemed to have more violence, guillotining, and sticking heads on pikes…

The culmination of the tragedy was that the plight of the commoner only got worse as the Revolution dragged on.  The politicians who entered the revolving door of power seemed intent on guaranteeing their own safety (usually by getting their rivals executed) rather than providing for the people, despite what they said publicly.  The life of the common man did not improve; Hibbert reports the cost of living increased 30x in the years following the fall of the Bastille.  Plus, while they got rid of a king, they ended up with an Emperor.

Finally, the fate of Louis XVI was also tragic.  His situation was pretty hopeless to begin with due to no fault of his own; the storm had been building up at least since his grandfather’s time.  But Louis XVI’s lack of self-confidence and tepid personality rendered him unable to do much of anything at all to change things — he was more of a pawn than a player in the game.  Kind of feel sorry for the guy, and his family.

“The Discovery of France” by Graham Robb


Lately my interest in France has been piqued for a few reasons.  First of all, I saw Les Miserables over Christmas; my wife asked me if I knew about the historical events in the story.  I mumbled something about the French Revolution… actually, I was off by 40+ years!  I realized my grasp of French history was pretty lacking.  I only have a vague outline of bourgeoisie, guillotines, and Napoleon; then the Nazis invaded sometime after that.

A couple of weeks later I heard an NPR story about a Breton singer, who does Celtic music.  Which isn’t too surprising, since Brittany is one of the six Celtic nations.  Wait, what?  I really never knew that!

Anyway, “The Discovery of France” discussion dovetails quite nicely from that last anecdote.  The main idea is that France is a very diverse nation, and was not truly unified until shockingly late — it took the inventions of the bicycle and railroad in the mid-late 1800’s to really homogenize society and create a nation.  Previously, what we think of as “French” was generally just describing Paris and nearby environs.  A crazy thought is that most of Europe was probably similar – a small percentage of the population (in the cities) were the movers and shakers of history; the sparsely populated but almost infinitely numerous and diverse villages and regions were almost unaware or at least indifferent to the affairs of the “Parisiens.”  At least until the taxman or army recruiter came to town.  (Or surveyors working for the Cassini map-making expedition – Robb’s opening anecdote is of a surveyor who was killed by natives of a particular village who were convinced his hieroglyphical scribblings, odd instruments and generally poking around were signs of devilish purposes.)

Languages and customs varied wildly even a few day’s journey in any direction.  However, Robb does make a few generalizations.  The life of most of the peasant population was pretty static for several centuries, and somewhat grim by today’s standards.  Winter was almost a time of hibernation.  Very little work was done, but not (solely) out of laziness – calories were scarce and needed to be stretched as far as possible.  Living on the verge of starvation kind of tends to limit your extracurricular activities.  Not to mention creativity and entrepreneurship.

Travel in the interior of France was a hazardous endeavour.  Road upkeep was generally a civic duty for peasants, who could be punished if they didn’t participate.  Forced, non-professional labor somehow resulted in a remarkably unsafe and ill-maintained road system.  Robb quotes from a gem of a French-German phrase book in a few places when discussing what travel was like through the interior, when people rarely did so and never for sport or vacation:

  • “Postilion; stop, the brakes must be attached.”
  • “I believe that the wheels are on fire.  Look and see.”
  • “Postilion, a man has just climbed onto the back of the coach.  Make him get down.”
  • “There is a large lump on his head.  Should we not apply a coin to the lump in order to flatten it?”