The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough (audio)

greaterjourneyThis is my first experience with the very well-respected David McCullough. “Americans in Paris” is a huge topic; but if anyone can do it justice, we’re told, McCullough might be that one. This feels like a quite comprehensive study of Americans in Paris in the 1800’s, complete with name-dropping and historical context. (I say “feels like” because I don’t have the historical knowledge myself to confirm or question McCullough’s comprehensiveness!)

McCullough follows Americans in Paris more or less chronologically, starting with the 1830’s and following through the end of the century. His subjects range over various disciplines and the story he tells seems to ramble, from art & literature, to medicine, to culture, war, and back to art. In the 1830’s we meet those who were among the first to make the journey, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. A number of chapters are devoted to visual artists and writers, and the artistic superiority of France and the Continent which was only beginning to be challenged by Americans. Samuel Morse not only painted his masterpiece in Paris, but began work on what would become the telegraph; Harriet Beecher Stowe sought escape from the publicity following Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the first American female medical students studied there; and Charles Sumner’s observation of black students in Paris would lead him to a new understanding of black Americans’ abilities, and help him become one of our first abolitionist Congressmen. Rather fewer chapters* are devoted to the medicals, but I enjoyed very much McCullough’s descriptions of the École de Médecine and the American students who studied there. At the time, France was the place to study medicine, and the personalities who taught it loomed large; their role in this section of the book was very entertaining to me. (Also, I thought of The Lady and Her Monsters as McCullough discussed the dissection of cadavers, and their sources.)

Moving forward a few decades, later waves of American visitors to Paris would more commonly bring their families with them to live a fuller life than that of the student or artist; and there would be many more of them. One of the strongest sections of The Greater Journey describes the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and the role of American ambassador Elihu Washburne. He was the only ambassador who stayed, and he saved innumerable Americans as well as Germans, helping them evacuate and generally organizing and supporting – literally, in many cases, as he fed & boarded a number of the displaced. He was well regarded for this work, above and beyond the call of duty. The Franco-Prussian War (which felt vaguely familiar to me from my recent readings of de Maupassant), is well told; and McCullough’s description the Paris Commune is evocative and powerful.

Another figure that receives personal attention is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an Irish-American kid from a family of decidedly modest means who travels to Paris and becomes a world-renowned artist. You may know him for his bronze Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common and his statue of William Tecumseh Sherman at a corner in New York’s Central Park. Saint-Gaudens’ life is examined from his youth through his old age and death; I found this study of an artist to be a very interesting sub-story within The Greater Journey. Likewise the life of Mary Cassatt, an American painter famous for Impressionism who was significantly shaped by Paris.

In other words, while McCullough seems almost to ramble amongst various people, disciplines, and issues, each of his individual subjects is well-treated and fascinating; and any seeming lack of structure is happily tolerated because all the stories are so enjoyable. It’s not really that the book lacks structure, only that following Parisian Americans chronologically takes us through all these twists and turns. The whole is highly readable and a good primer in French/American history in the 1800’s. For example, one consistent thread throughout is the close relationship shared by our two countries during this century, beginning with General Lafayette’s support of the American Revolution in 1776.

The Greater Journey is an interesting and enjoyable read, a good central place to learn a number of individual facts and anecdotes about Americans traveling and living in Paris in 1830-1900. I have the impression that McCullough’s research is good; I am charmed.

*I am not entirely clear on the proportions of the book devoted to each subject, because I listened to the audio and thus could not grab chunks of pages for visual comparison. It is a shortcoming of the audio format. You get only my impressions.

Rating: 7 croissants.

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