The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
Link to the Amazon review
The City of Lights captivates Americans like no other. As true as this has been in the 20th century, it was equally true in the 19th as well. For many Americans of education, culture and means during the 19th century, time in Paris was nearly indispensable. Not only writers, artists, sculptors, but medical doctors and many others went to Paris to broaden their tastes, perspectives and professional training. There they savored art, architecture, music, intellectual discourse and even the discovery of a more relaxed way to enjoy life, which were all available in far more abundance than America offered even in its larger cities. David McCullough's The Greater Journey looks at the many prominent 19th century Americans who spent part of their lives in Paris and catalogs the details of their sojourns.
As he has done in numerous works, McCullough once again displays his great skill in inserting his reader into the story. He does not neglect the travel itself, explaining the nuances and rigors of 19th century transatlantic crossings and the coach rides needed to get his subjects to their destination. Once in Paris, we read of the city's many delights. Gastronomy, art, architecture, society, music, theater, etc. are all relayed in a vivid manner sure to delight many readers, particularly Francophiles.
To be sure, Paris had its share of disappointments. Charles Sumner, later to become a US Senator and leading abolitionist detested the constant presence of soldiers in the city. Educator Emma Willard was distraught at the high rate of child abandonment and the sight of parentless infants in the hospital. Still, the vast majority of the book is consumed with the Americans' many delights in what the city offered.
Rather than the travelers, however, the book's ultimate protagonist is the city of Paris itself. The capital of Europe in a sense, it was truly a mandatory destination not just for the arts but other learned professions during the 19th century. What's all too lacking, however, is WHY this was. McCullough slights the city's history and the reason for its great preeminence in nearly all facets of learning in most cases (medicine is an exception - the willingness of female patients to submit to examinations by male doctors and the easy availability of cadavers were the major reasons Paris was a major center for medical education). This detracted from my enjoyment of the book. In addition, he does not give us a great sense of how and to what extent "The Greater Journey" impacted American arts and letters (again, medicine is the exception). The Parisian influence on the US was surely significant given the importance of the Americans who traveled there and back, but McCullough doesn't always give us a clear idea of how or to what extent this was passed on after their arrival back in the United States.
Interestingly, however, McCullough relates that their time in Paris often reinvigorated the Americans' self-identity and pride in their own homeland rather than adopting a view if French or European superiority as might be expected. Why this is, McCullough doesn't venture an explanation.
Overall, however, readers will delight in the Parisian experience of the book's subjects and those without a background in 19th century American letters, arts and sciences (in this I count myself) will learn a great deal. One wishes for a writer of McCullough's gifts of clear storytelling and a little bit more analytical ability and inquisitiveness, but most will find the Greater Journey highly enjoyable, as I did.