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.”