The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
Summary: Vignettes of the waves of Americans who came to Paris as writers, artists, medical students, musicians, politicians, diplomats, and members of the cultured elite, and the profound impact the “City of Light” had on their lives.
Before An American in Paris was a George Gershwin composition, it was a reality for generations of Americans who played culture-shaping roles on both sides of the Atlantic. Historian and biographer David McCullough combines these two genres in a history of the Americans who took the risky journey to Europe, and a “greater journey” culturally and intellectually during their time in Paris.
The book is organized chronologically beginning in the 1820’s and the journeys of James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., lawyer and later abolitionist Charles Sumner up through the 1890’s with Henry Adams and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. Some lived in Paris just a few years, some, like artist George A.P. Healey for most of their adult lives. All were profoundly touched by Paris. Sumner, living among students from Africa while pursuing studies in the Sorbonne, came to realize these people were his intellectual equals, and became an abolitionist. Later, after being caned by southern congressman Preston Brooks following a fiery anti-slavery speech, Sumner found Paris the one place that could calm his shattered nerves and restore his physical well-being.
Many came to study medicine in Paris including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Henry Bowditch. Most determined of all was Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first women physician in America. Americans braved the dangers of a typhoid epidemic and learned the most advanced, and yet by modern standards, primitive methods of surgery.
The artists found special inspiration, studying with masters and reproducing the masterpieces they found in the Louvre. Most striking is the story of Samuel F. B. Morse, who painted a giant painting of a room in the Louvre with selected masterpieces. This is the same Morse who eventually invented the telegraph. In a later period, we read the story of Mary Cassatt, who joins the impressionists, and paints striking works of domestic scenes with family members as her subjects. The works of John Singer Sargent won acclaim in Paris, culminating in the controversial Madame X, a life-size portrait of Madame Gautreau, a striking woman with dark hair and deathly white skin. It was in Paris where Augustus Saint Gaudens executed statues of David Farragut and William Sherman and many others that are the most distinctive public sculptures in New York and other cities (including a statue of Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago.
Perhaps most striking for me was the narrative of the courageous efforts of American ambassador Elihu Washburne during the seige of Paris. Washburne stayed throughout, and because of the diary he kept, provided a narrative of his efforts to secret refugees as well as Americans out of the country, intercede on behalf of prisoners, and provide food and other assistance in an increasingly famine-ridden city. One short entry typifies his exertions:
“December 15. 89th day of the siege….Went to the Legation this P.M. at two o’clock. The ante room was filled with poor German women asking aid. I am now giving succor to more than six hundred women and children.”
His presence throughout the siege and fall of Paris, and his diary mark him as one of the very greatest of American ambassadors, and a more than worthy successor to Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson.
I’ve read some reviews of this book that criticize it for its multitude of characters and problems of continuity. I did not find this a problem because the common theme that runs through was the profound impact Paris had on all of these figures and how so many of their culture-shaping and making contributions trace back to the unique milieu of Paris. In addition, McCullough’s skill in sketching out the unique character of each of these individuals as well as the community they often formed with each other as well as Parisian friends and mentor. One thinks of similar places like New York at certain times, and the artistic communities as diverse as those in Harlem and Greenwich Village. What McCullough does here is trace an influential artistic and intellectual community over the course of nearly a century, through vicissitudes of plague and political upheaval continuing to be a “City of Light” to so many who came to her. I don’t think McCullough answers the question of why, but perhaps that is the mystique of Paris.