THE GREATER JOURNEY: AMERICANS IN PARIS
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, $27, 544 pages
When most people talk about leading American cultural figures living in Paris, it is the expatriates who lived there during the 1920s who most often come to mind. However, these expatriates were following the example set in the 19th century by an array of artists, writers and thinkers.
In “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough sheds some much-needed light on those Americans who resided in that magical city from the 1830s through the turn of the century. He doesn’t break much new ground, but does a masterful job of synthesizing a great deal of information and telling the story of that time period in a compelling and engaging manner.
Although most of the action takes place in Paris, Mr. McCullough sets the stage by quoting extensively from the letters and journals of those who made the often arduous journey across the Atlantic to get there. “The rocking vessel impedes my pen. And now, as my head begins slightly to reel, my imagination entertains the glorious prospects before me,” wrote future Massachusetts Republican Sen. Charles Sumner.
Though the author spends a fair amount of time discussing the pre- and post-Paris life of Sumner, who would become one of the leading abolitionists and was badly beaten by another lawmaker because of his beliefs, this isn’t primarily a political book.
To be sure, Mr. McCullough doesn’t shy away from describing the political conflicts of the time. And his portrayals of the American diplomats who had to navigate the volatile social and political changes are quite vivid. However, some of the profiles could have been cut and the narrative in this selection occasionally drags.
Mr. McCullough, who once started working on a biography of Pablo Picasso but stopped because he found that he disliked his subject, satisfies his love for visual arts by spending a great deal of time on the painters of the era.
He provides minibiographies of many of these artists, including Mary Cassatt, Samuel F.B. Morse and John Singer Sargent. Many of the artists studied with the city’s masters and spent days in the Louvre and other museums.
Mr. McCullough’s ability to describe the thought processes of his subjects are in full view when he talks about the challenges that Mr. Morse faced while working at the Louvre, painting what would become his masterpiece, “The Gallery of the Louvre.”
“Morse was terrified. In his youth, he had taken the dying Hercules as a subject. Now, bending to this Herculean task, with death [from cholera] all about, he could only wonder if it was to mean his demise,” the author writes.
By choosing Morse, Mr. McCullough was able to engage in scientific history as well, and the author does an outstanding job of discussing the invention of and reaction to Morse’s electronic telegraph.
Readers will also learn quite a bit of scientific history from the section on the American physicians who came to Paris to study French medical education that, in the early 19th century, was far more advanced than that of the United States.
Mr. McCullough profiles several prominent American medical educators and physicians who studied there, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and J. Mason Warren. The author notes that the letters of Dr. Warren, who would later become one of the earliest specialists in plastic and reconstructive surgery, provided some of the fullest accounts of the life of medical students in Paris during that era.
Even more engaging, however, are the descriptions of and rivalries among the French educators who were at the top of their game. In addition, Mr. McCullough uncovers factoids such as that French medical educators had an easier time than their American counterparts because the rules of France made more cadavers available for dissection.
Readers more interested in literature than laboratories won’t be disappointed. Some of the era’s literary giants, including James Fennimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain make appearances. Mr. Twain would write in “Innocents Abroad” that Paris “flashed upon us as a splendid meteor.”