The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris

David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 2011

McCullough gives the big picture. This is more than a series of snapshots of the famous Americans who spent time in Paris between 1830 and 1900. It is a long panoramic overview of various flocks in art, medicine, and industry. McCullough begins with writer James Fenimore Cooper and ends with artist Mary Cassatt in his sweeping effort to trace the lives of Americans who benefited from time well-spent away from the puritanical and business driven United States to experience the inspiring, artistic world of the enjoyment-driven Parisians. Time away seems to have benefited them all, and in turn added to the American experience with what they brought home in their work and passion.

Within the seventy years the reader will learn trivia, enjoy biographical sketches, observe historical trends in several fields, watch earlier technological advances, and in the end come away with a personal desire to visit or revisit Paris. Though the biographies of people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America’s first female doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and painter John Singer Sargent are far more complete in other books, McCullough has managed to show how each one fits into the larger picture of the history of their social and cultural times.

As shown in the Acknowledgements, McCullough had a fleet of researchers helping him cull and organize the information, so while it bears only his name on the cover, the book is the result of a staff mission to give an entertaining overview worthy of popular reading. The casual historian who likes the the big picture and enjoys adding the clever quip to a conversation will treasure this source book. Now I know a first guide book of Paris was named Galignani’s New Paris Guide and was published in 1830. And I thought Fodor’s and Frommer’s had original ideas. I enjoy adding the clever quip though I seldom remember until too late, but I did enjoy absorbing a bit more of the big picture. There were pages when I was distracted by paragraphs that seemed out of order, awkwardly written, and reports of deaths and departures back to the U.S. that a dozen pages later was upended by the dead or departed person suddenly alive and back in the action. The larger linear picture is not reflected in the interwoven stories.

The Greater Journey is to be appreciated as a compilation for the lazy (or busy) but still interested-in-history reader. A favorite passage was written by a daughter and inheritor of the U.S. diligence to puritanism and work ethic, author Harriett Beecher Stowe who wrote the revolutionary Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote what all Americans who visit Paris wonder about on their own: With all New England’s earnestness and practical efficiency, there is a long withering of the soul’s more ethereal part–a crushing out of the beautiful–which is horrible.

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