Thursday, October 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 191: George Catlin, “There is no end to the amusements of Paris” (#124)

George Catlin, "'There is no end to the amusements of Paris'" (1848) from Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology:

Here's one of those stories from an LoA book where I'm really more interested in the story-behind-the-story: George Catlin was an American painter who specialized in Native American scenes--and who was going nowhere in America at the time. (Or at least not getting far enough.) So he went to Europe to show off his paintings; and in London, he connected with a group of Iowas who were doing a traveling show; and the whole group went to Paris, including a medicine Doctor and a black translator named Jeffrey Doraway.

So what we get is Catlin telling the story of how his group found Paris: how he had to deal with the bureaucracy and meet the royals. In other words, it comes off like another version of Barnum's story of going to France. But what I really want is the story of Jeffrey Doraway and of the Iowas who were exhibiting themselves.

We get a hint of that in Catlin's record of what the Iowas thought of Paris. So, they were curious about how dogs were kept as pets in France rather than as working dogs or as food. We get comments about how hot they were in their buffalo robes--but how their paint helped give them space in certain salons where people didn't want to get paint on them. I also love hearing how they went to a salon with Americans, "to whom they felt the peculiar attachment of countrymen, though of a different complexion, and anywhere else than across the Atlantic would have been strangers to."

But Catlin, for all his interest in carefully detailed portraiture, has an occasionally hilariously plain style. For instance, after going on at length about the fireworks given for the king--about their light, color, and sound--Catlin ends with the somewhat pedestrian, "This wonderful scene lasted for half an hour."

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