The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough

I’m on a McCullough kick after reading the acclaimed 1776. This book piqued my interest because I visited Paris last Spring. It looked interesting and I wondered at what treasures it contained.

It is a little bit deceiving, I think however. While this is a history of Americans in Paris in the 19th century, it also works as a history of Paris and even larger, France, in the 19th century. It coincides with my Western Civilization II class I’m taking nicely however. We just made it into the mid 19th century so I was pleasantly surprised to find some correlating information between the two sources.

The book essentially is about how artists, painters, sculptors, writers, inventors, and politicians made their way to Paris and as a result, were impacted in a way that changed the course of their lives and of the nation that they represented. I’ll give you an example: Samuel Morse was a painter who made his way to Paris in the 19th century. He had painting gigs at the Louvre. Popular at this time was creating miniatures of famous paintings in the Louvre. He developed a friendship with James Fenimore Cooper who wrote the famous book “The Last of the Mohicans.” His time in Paris led him to think up an extraordinary invention: people could type out messages via an electrical current to be received, decoded, and given to the recipient from miles and miles away. He called this, the telegraph. He invented his own system of dashes and dots called “morse code.”

Much of this book, at no surprise, focuses on great artists who found their stride in Paris. Among these were sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. But the impact of Paris on artists in the 19th century reaches beyond this. For example, Harriet Beacher Stowe wrote one of the most famous pieces of American literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was a guest in the great city for a period of time. An early portion of the book focuses on medical students who came to Paris for training. At this time in America, the collegiate opportunities for medicine were limited and Americans came to Paris to further their studies quite often. The first female doctor in America was trained in Paris. Politics also take up some portion of the book. Elihu Washburne was the American Ambassador and lived in Paris through the Frano-Prussia war and the siege on Paris.

What I enjoyed about this book was that it is not simply a history of Americans in Paris, but a history of Paris. Each story is a microcosm of a larger picture that needs to be explained. What we tend to forget about history is that the siege at Paris by the Prussians was a real, historical event that affected real, living people. It’s easy to read a sentence or a paragraph about how terrible things were, but it’s quite another thing to look at a particular human being, tummy growling, cooking rats for food, that brings history to life; it is not merely concepts or big pictures, but how events transpired and affected people. I like that about this book, and I like it even more because I’ve been to this great city and I can picture some of the images presented.

For the historian or the layman, I think this is an intriguing book worth your time.

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