18 May 2013 **** Front Page

American intellectuals find inspiration in Paris

By Laura L. Klure

David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Simon & Schuster 2011.

The main virtue of this well-researched book is the integration of people and events, giving a somewhat global perspective to the history of the 19th century. McCullough begins by telling about “the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers.” History, especially in the United States, is often taught in courses that segregate the happenings by locale, into “American History,” or “European History.” McCullough melds the two, also stirring in bits of the history of art, music, and literature – subjects often totally separated from the history of government.

Readers learn how the lives of various famous American people fit into the larger history of their times. The author follows the travels of such notables as James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Wendell Holmes (father of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.), Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Catlin, P. T. Barnum, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and a host of other less well-known folks. With such a large list of subjects, it is challenging, at times, to remember who is being discussed, and what was said earlier about their lives and travels. However, the correlation of their stories with what was happening in the world sheds light on the creativity, accomplishments, and challenges of these people. This linkage of influential factors is definitely worthwhile.

McCullough also points out some of what Europeans, particularly the French, thought about the United States in its formative years. This perspective is often lacking in American education. For Americans, there might seem to be a flaw in McCullough's extremely sparse coverage of the American Civil War, 1861-1865. However, from the European point of view and experience, this war was not as significant, as earth-shattering as it was for Americans. Had McCullough spent more time discussing the Civil War, the somewhat painful length of the book would have been expanded.

In his coverage of the second half of the 1800s, McCullough focuses a lot on the artist Mary Cassatt. Cassatt spent such a large percentage of her life in France (and also Spain), and is so associated with the artist community in Paris, that some readers might be surprised to learn that she was born in the USA (Pennsylvania).

McCullough's book includes three major sections of good color photos of people, places, and art works. These add depth to the narrative, and they provide a respite if some of the travel tales might seem to lag. The book ends with the death of Mary Cassatt in 1926, but it does not really cover much of the 20th century. In its chronicling of the 19th century, The Greater Journey is pretty much guaranteed to teach the reader something new of value.

This is a book many readers both loved and hated. The factual content is often very interesting, but the book is LONG! The thickness of the paperback (about 3.5 cm) is only slightly misleading — about 100 pages at the end are consumed by the end-notes, references, and index. The main text is 456 pages.

 

The Geater Journey is noted as a "#1 National Bestseller" in the U.S. The book cover gives the following information about the author: "David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback.  His other acclaimed books are 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, and The Johnstown Flood. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom." 

Listen to David McCullough explain why he wrote the book

Read other articles by Laura L. Klure

 

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