The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

  • By David McCullough
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 544 pp.

Culture envy among early transatlantic travelers from the provincial New World.

In The Greater Journey, master historian David McCullough creates a compelling cultural and social history drawn from the lives and extraordinary accomplishments of a singular group of men and a few women who traveled to Paris from the raw and provincial United States, then only a half-century old.

For the Americans who people McCullough’s new book, the Old World generally, but Paris most specifically, held an almost magnetic attraction. Among these travelers were artists like Samuel F. B. Morse, George Healy and Mary Cassatt, who were to attain great fame, and authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose works were already acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. For Emma Willard, the educator, and Charles Sumner, the statesman, it was the love of learning that led them to the French capital. The artists in particular believed a sojourn in Paris was vital. Morse insisted: “My education as a painter is incomplete without it.”

That the young nation from which the travelers embarked was thinly populated (13 million people, more than 2 million of whom were enslaved) and sorely lacking cultural and educational amenities was soon to be pointed out by Alexis de Tocqueville, who was traveling in and observing the United States just as the first of McCullough’s protagonists set sail.

Until 1838, when steamships first crossed the ocean, transatlantic travelers sailed on packet ships — cargo vessels that also carried passengers. The voyage was not for the faint-hearted, lasting at least a month and sometimes as long as six weeks. Emma Willard’s crossing was so fearsome that she seriously considered whether, if she survived, she should simply remain in Europe.

Lacking any other means of communication — since Morse’s telegraph, while conceived in Paris around 1830, was not widely in service until the 1840s — McCullough’s Americans wrote home at length about their lives abroad. Some of the most memorable writing comes not from the writers but from artists like the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the portraitist John Singer Sargent and especially the gallant but unsung diplomat Elihu Washburne. McCullough skillfully entwines the letters in his text, allowing the travelers to speak in their own voices about their lives in Paris. The Greater Journey is not epistolary, but this judiciously employed first-person element lends immediacy to this book that histories sometimes lack.

Once in France, the Americans were immediately struck by the differences between the Old World and the New. Chief among these was simply the antiquity of their surroundings — like the cathedral in Rouen, a Gothic masterpiece utterly unlike anything they had seen before. At home, the Capitol — still under construction at that time — was the largest building in the new nation, and even landmarks like Independence Hall were less than a hundred years old.

In Paris at last, the Americans marveled, as we still do, at the food, the fashionable Parisians and the distinctive ability of the French to savor life; they were thrilled by the artistic and intellectual feast before them. In France, it seemed that everyone cared about art; French people from all walks of life visited the Louvre, where Morse and the other artists worked surrounded by the museum’s incomparable treasures. The Americans could choose from a tantalizing array of performing arts. Paris was home to 20 theaters and two acclaimed opera companies.

If the visitors did not speak French already, most of them tried to learn it quickly, unwilling to miss any nuance of their experience. Still, not all the Americans mastered the language and some, with amusing results, never forsook the rules of pronunciation that govern English. For the medical students, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Elizabeth Blackwell, Paris afforded unmatched opportunities to learn. For them, fluency in French was almost indispensable, since that was the sole language in which medical instruction was given at the celebrated Ecole de Médicine de Paris.

These students arrived in Paris determined to improve themselves professionally; while most of them quickly fell under the city’s spell, its remarkable environment inspired them to create and study. Elizabeth Blackwell concentrated on obstetrics, one field of medicine in which her gender was not a barrier. Thomas Evans’s skill made him the most celebrated dentist in Paris, numbering among his patients King Louis Philippe.

Elihu Washburne, chief of the U.S. mission in Paris, was neither a writer nor an artist, but his eloquent diaries and letters provide the book’s most arresting reading. Heroically, he chose to remain at the American Legation during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The war was brief but bloody, and France finally surrendered, but not soon enough to save the 65,000 civilians who died as Paris endured a 131-day siege. Washburne provides gripping first-hand accounts of these momentous events while modestly recounting his own ceaseless efforts to help people escape the war and the Commune, which was its horrific aftermath.

As he always does, McCullough in his newest book offers a unique historical perspective; here he identifies some of the bases for our lasting indebtedness to French culture. Because most Americans are likely unaware of the magnitude and breadth of this debt, this is a story that needs to be told.

While the historic quality of Journey is up to McCullough’s usual high standards, the book is in essence a romantic story, and it lacks some of the dramatic intensity that typically characterizes this celebrated writer’s work. Greater Journey is, nonetheless, an imaginatively told and wonderfully satisfying narrative that well deserves a place alongside McCullough’s other histories.

Penelope Farthing is a practicing lawyer with an abiding interest in American history and politics.

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