This is the inspiring and, until now, untold story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, ambitious to excel in their work. Most had never left home, never experienced a different culture. None had any guarantee of success. That they achieved so much for themselves and their country profoundly altered American history. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America; future abolitionist Charles Sumner; staunch friends James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse (who saw something in France that gave him the idea for the telegraph); pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk; medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes; writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James; Harriet Beecher Stowe, seeking escape from the notoriety Uncle Tom's Cabin had brought her; sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent; and American ambassador Elihu Washburne, who bravely remained at his post through the Franco-Prussian War, the long Siege of Paris and even more atrocious nightmare of the Commune. His vivid account in his diary of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris (drawn on here for the first time) is one readers will never forget. Nearly all of these Americans, whatever their troubles, spent many of the happiest days and nights of their lives in Paris.--From publisher description.McCullough mixes famous and obscure names and delivers capsule biographies of everyone to produce a colorful parade of educated, Victorian-era American travelers and their life-changing experiences in Paris.
David McCullough gives us the vibrant answer in his extensively researched The Greater Journey. Beginning in 1830, he tells the story of the many 19th century American artists and authors who we may not associate with Paris, but who studied and produced great works there, or returned home to do so based on what they learned. I had known, for example, that there was a connection with Paris for James Fenimore Cooper, and that he was revered there, but didn't have any feel for the extent of it until reading this book. Balzac said of Cooper that "in his hands the art of the pen has never come closer to the art of the brush". Really? That guy who wrote about Hawkeye and Chingachgook?
We follow the painter Samuel Morse, a depressed widower who labors for months to depict a great hallway of paintings in his most famous painting, "The Gallery of the Louvre" Does his name sound familiar? Yes, that's "the Morse code guy". Noticing a semaphore system of communication in France, he became determined to create an electronic version.
Mary Cassatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thoreau, and many others, make their appearances, making the long journey across the ocean by boat. McCullough managed to get me quite interested in the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of a shoemaker who ended up creating famous public sculptures, many commemorating the Civil War. The period detail McCullough supplies often is eye-opening. We can laugh now about the widely shared belief that the barbaric industrial Eiffel Tower, in the process of completion, would be the ruin of Paris, but it was the end of the world for some Parisians of the time.
I was particularly struck by the section on the many American medical students who came to study in Paris because its doctors were so far ahead of the rest of the world. The idea of studying cadavers was routine in Paris but unpracticed in the U.S. American students could watch France's finest surgeons operate, and follow its doctors on their rounds, and then take back what they learned to the needy U.S. As reported by McCullough, some of those French doctors were ridiculously full of themselves and peremptory, starting a tradition we see in this country to this day. (OK, that's my gloss, not McCullough's).
McCullough effectively puts us in the middle of climactic events, including the 1870-71 siege of Paris by the Germans (with the stupidity leading to it artfully explained). The level of deprivation is heartbreaking. Due to superior dining value, cats sold for much more than dogs, and rats were reported to taste much like birds - "the flavor of a brewery rat surpassed that of the sewer rat, due to its diet."
I was glad to see the (to me) still under-appreciated John Singer Sargent get his due here, as his youthful genius and wide-ranging skills garner him appreciation on both sides of the Atlantic. The struggles to make ends meet for many of these Americans help underscore the wonder of their accomplishments. Paris was favored in part because a decent life was simply cheaper there. Many thanks to Anne (NarratorLady) for recommending this one. It's an entertaining and informative read for anyone interested in this time and place, and the Americans who journeyed there.
McCullough explains, of the 1830s crowd in particular, many went to Paris because America was still kind of a "bumpkin" country of only 24 fairly new states, but their reasons were varied and situational. They went to study art, history, literature, languages, science, medicine, etc. or for health concerns. One intrepid New York reporter went for journalistic reasons. It was by no means a mass exodus or political statement, just a bunch of people trying to further themselves in one way or another. For instance, Oliver Wendell Holmes went to study medicine, for which there was no official schooling in the U.S. at the time, and he wanted to be a knowledgeable doctor rather than just a dispenser of pills. (It’s worth noting that the section on the medical students is not for the squeamish with its descriptions of amputations and so forth, but it does have interesting insights on medical advances of the time period.) Amazingly, many of these people didn't know a lick of the French language, and knew little about the culture and politics of France. Despite this, and the long and precarious ship voyage across the Atlantic, they all decided to make the trip anyway, and I envy their courage.
Upon arrival in Paris, they noted the city is a contradiction of "mud and gild" everywhere – I absolutely love this description and think it’s still kind of apt, although less so mud now and just grit (i.e. dirt, litter, etc.). Many Americans were taken in the by the age of everything around them (some view this disparagingly while others are overwhelmed by how buildings could exist that are older than their home country, with one person noting that at home there is no prestige of age so people are less tied to traditions and less tied to buildings. This, as well as many other culture shocks between America and France, still seems true today. Some of these other culture shocks include how the French eat less but take longer to do so, with most meals out in public and how the French seem to enjoy leisurely strolls in public gardens much more so than Americans who are interested only in the utility of space and how much money it can make. There was already even the noted difference between the Puritanism of Americans versus the more relaxed ideas about sexuality of the French, particularly in evidence in the art on display everywhere in France, some of which made Americans prudish and/or bashful because of the "little or no drapery" on the sculptures. On the other hand, the go-to English-language Galignani's Guide to getting around France spoke of the politeness of French, noting that the only rude people to be found in Europe are the English, which was funny to me because it's a very different perspective than the worldwide one now that the French are snooty.
As the narrative progresses, it was interesting to hear of the revitalization of Paris conducted by Emperor Louis Napoleon III including some things like building broader boulevards, making the Bois do Bologne a public park, establishing the Opera Garnier and the plaza surrounding it, and setting up tables and chairs outside of cafes --- things that we think of as quintessentially Parisian but indeed are only approximately 250 years old. In a similar vein, hearing about the items introduced at the Exposition Universelle (1861) – including the saxophone (created by Adolphe Sax, the official musical instrument designer for the French emperor), the soda fountain (an American contribution), and aluminum – reminded me how it's so easy to forget that these now very common/well-known things were brand new not all that long ago. Indeed, throughout the book, it was interesting to hear about how many technological developments occurred in the timeframe covered. We tend to think that we in the 21st century have a monopoly on rapid changes in ways of life, but this era also saw the invention of the telephone, elevator, automobile, etc. McCullough spends some time talking about important inventions out of Paris in particular, including the telegraph and the daguerreotype.
There was also that shaking-my-head experience of hearing about how history repeats itself. McCullough discusses how the siege of Paris by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian war was viewed with utter dismay and astonishment. Victor Hugo had an impassioned plea for sparing Paris: “There has been an Athens, there has been a Rome, and there is a Paris. Paris is nothing but an immense hospitality.” Of course, we all know that Paris would be threatened again by the Germans during World War II, with again the world being shocked. Likewise, McCullough spends some time talking about how German residents of Paris were more than encouraged to leave during the war, something we have seen in times since (i.e., Japanese-American internment during WWII) and something that McCullough points out had happened before (i.e., Moors in Spain). However, in my opinion, the book lingered a little too long on the Franco-Prussian war and its aftermath with little American context beyond the diplomat Washburn's role during this time period. However, it was interesting to hear about the Venus de Milo being packed up from the Louvre and hidden to avoid destruction, as the same was done for her during World War II.
Throughout the book, McCullough writes about both little-known Americans who went to Paris and famous people such as Charles Sumner, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, and Augustus St. Gaudens, amongst others. Oftentimes, he provides a great deal of biographical context for the people he writes about, in addition to offering contextual information about the political situation of France at the time (i.e., the people’s king vs. the republic vs. the emperor) as well as that in America War (mainly the Civil War). With so much information being provided over such a long timeframe including a large cast of characters, the narrative can be a bit jumpy at times with McCullough writing one minute about art students and the next about slavery in America. Still, all in all, this is a fascinating historical book that I would highly recommend. It also includes a fair amount of art history for those who, like me, have an interest in that subject.
Finally, here are some technical details on the audio version for those who like to listen to their books. For some inexplicable reason, the publisher decided to only have tracks only every 20 to 30 minutes, which means if your attention wanders at all (which can be frequent when listening while driving and there are other distractions on the road that take precedence), it's not worth it to go back on that track and catch the few seconds or minute you missed. McCullough reads a very little bit of the book in the beginning, and then the narration switches over to actor Edward Hermann. I’m not sure why the audio director chose to go that route, but I was very happy to have the latter do the bulk of the reading; Hermann does a fantastic job, especially with all the French pronunciations.
It seems as though everyone who was anyone in the 1800s made the trek to Paris. There were artists and painters, of course, but also Elihu Washburne, President Grant's Minister to France during the turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Commune. We watch events unfold through his eyes as both politician and family man.
McCullough paints loving portraits of these Americans and the city that inspired them.
The only negative I would really throw at it is that there are so many characters especially in the first few chapters. I thought there would be more American history, but McCullough mostly recounted the time each character spent in Paris. Once someone went back to the US, then the narrative picked up with the next wave of ex-patriots. Recommended.
Each third of the book grows better and better! I'd probably give the first part of the book a 4 star rating, but the end was definitely a 5 star rating. The amazing story of the American ambassador during the Siege of Paris, the horrors of the Paris Commune, the remarkable genius of Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent top the rest of the book.
So apparently, the American ambassador, Elihu Washburne, kept a diary during the siege, but the diary was split up at the Library of Congress, copied, and interspersed with his other correspondence. Then a researcher for McCullough discovered the diary pieces and found out the family had a bound copy of the entire diary! The story of Ambassador Wasburne is fascinating, and according to the blurb on the back of the book, his diary account is published for the first time.
Pretty cool. You have to be a history geek to really get excited about a dense book, but I found this book to have a refreshingly different angle. It's not often that an author wants to tell the history of an expatriot community.
Later we see Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthrone, John Singer Sargent, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and perhaps mot admirably, US Ambassador Elihu Washburne, who alone in the diplomatic community remained in Pris during the siege of the Franco-Prussian was and the brutal Commune that followed France's defeat at the hands of Germany.
The reader also gets a capsule history of 19th century France from King Louis-Philippe to Napoleon III, from the grand designs of Baron HAussmann to the building of the Eiffel Tower. During it all, Americans in Paris seem remarkably like they are today. A bit provincial, always a little loud, but continuing to fall under the city's spell.
Like all of McCullough's books, this one is eminently readable and very well researched. This is a book for lovers of Paris as well as lovers of history.
Amidst a huge cast of characters, it is the life of three men that stood out for me. Firstly, Samuel Morse who turned from failed painter to successful inventor. Then, minister/ambassador Elihu Washburne whose discovery of and trust in US Grant might have saved the country acted splendidly during the Franco-Prussian War and the dreadful days of the Paris Commune. Finally, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of the Robert G. Shaw memorial in Boston, the Sherman statue in New York and the Adams Memorial in Washington, DC. Through their eyes and lives, the reader is supplied with the essentials of the turbulent French history from the 1830s to 1900. Sometimes, McCullough misses obvious connections - scolding Napoleon III for not having achieved the rank of colonel without mentioning that he attended the Swiss military academy and served as a major. (higher than US Grant's rank of captain) An obvious connection would have been his input to the so called Napoleon gun, the workhorse of the US Civil War. Overall, a worthy addition to McCullough's stable of wonderful books.
McCullough focuses on the development of American culture, as artists and thinkers such as the painter Mary Cassatt, the future Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, who studied at the Sorbonne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., then a young medical student, and so many others experienced Paris in the 19th century.
It was a time and pace of excitement apace in the world of ideas with the expansion of knowledge in medicine, the arts, philosophy, and Paris was a center of this activity. Americans were drawn to this center throughout the century from Samuel F. B. Morse and Nathaniel Willis, painters, to Augustus Saint Gaudens, the sculptor. Writers as diverse as James Fennimore Cooper and Henry James. In fact Henry and his brother William spent some of their youth in Paris while getting a European education. The breadth of those who participated in these journeys was incredible, especially given the dangers of ocean crossing which early in the century before the advent of steamship lines took about a month. "Paris was the medical capital of the world. Our medical training was woefully behind. And this was a chance to perfect their skills and their profession, but also to come back and teach what they had learned, which almost all of them did. And the others were pioneers in launching into careers for which there was no training available here. There were no schools of architecture. There were no schools of art. There were no museums where you could go and look at paintings. It's hard to believe that, but that's how it was. It was the cultural capital of the world." (from an interview with David McCullough on PBS)
Harriet Beecher Stowe wondered what was the mysterious allure of Paris. She thought it might be the river Seine, likening it to the Ohio which she knew well. She went beyond to compare art to literature, matching authors with painters. While she questioned the value of French art when she stated “French life has more pretty pictures and popular lithographs . . . but it produces very little of the deepest and highest style of art.”, the Americans who were beginning an new American tradition learned much from their experiences in Paris.
One Frenchman who inspired many of the Americans who journeyed to Paris was the inimitable Marquis de Lafayette. His efforts in the revolutionary war and his return visit to America in 1824 when he received tremendous acclaim led several of the travelers his way on their sojourns in Paris. Primarily this book is a history of lives and ideas. McCullough's book challenges the reader to expand his notion of what education meant and what Americans gained from the French beyond their diplomatic and financial support as the United States grew into a great nation in the nineteenth century.
These Americans included writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote some of his best novels in Paris, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James, but they also included many who traveled to Paris to study art (John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mary Cassatt among them) or medicine (such as Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first female doctor, and Mason Warren). A few went to Paris to study one thing, then became famous for doing something else. Samuel F.B. Morse was there to study art, then invented the telegraph. Oliver Wendell Holmes went to Paris as a medical student but made his reputation in literature.
A few notable Americans in Paris didn't quite fit the usual mold. These included such people as P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, White Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody.
McCullough's book proves to be something of a who's who of important Americans of the 19th century, yet at the same time it becomes a history of 19th century Paris from the perspective of those American visitors. These were trying times for Parisians, with a siege by a Prussian army, the brutal Paris Commune and Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat. Americans were there to witness it all, as well as the world's fairs and the construction of the Eiffel Tower.
McCullough writes readable history, which is why his books become bestsellers. I'm never disappointed with his books, and "The Greater Journey certainly does not disappoint."
One of my favorite things that McCullough brought to life in his book are the stories on a more day to day level. His chapter on medicine and the surgery were gut wrenching, and so interesting that I could honestly picture the group of doctors gathered around to watch intricate surgeries, knowing their patient would most likely die. The thought that almost every patient died really struck me. I can't imagine the pain and suffering someone would have to be in to allow themselves to be put that close to death. From these early surgeries, however, our modern medical field gained vast amounts of knowledge on anesthesia and anatomy.
The stories really are too many to even retell, but the varieties of people, events, and subjects make this a truly phenomenal read for lovers of history. How McCullough managed to get to the heart of what people were doing in Paris and what drove them there is amazing to consider. I found it to be an overwhelming, yet intriguing piece of history that I would recommend for any reader.
For example, in 1833 the twelve Paris hospitals treated over 65,000 patients in contrast to the two Boston hospitals that treated fewer than 800. But beyond the volume of patients and thus variety of ailments, Parisian physicians were at the forefront of medical knowledge and warmly welcome the American physicians as students.
When it came to the arts, painters and writers found Paris an invigorating and life changing experience. Over and over again, McCullough provides examples of writers and painters that came to Paris to recharge their creative batteries through their career.
In summary, David McCullough provides an enjoyable spotlight into the lives of some of our most important Americans and the influence Paris had on their lives. He also illuminates our enduring relationship with the French and Paris in particular.
I love Edward Herrmann, it's not his narration. He does a stealer job - I loved his French.
It's the book. I normally love David McCullough's writing but this book just seemed scattered to me. Maybe it's because most of the histories I've read lately have centered on one person. But it didn't seem like there was a plan. It was like he had all these great stories about all these notable Americans and he just threw them down on the page.
So I'm going to take a bit of advice from that old saying, life is too short to read bad books.
I strongly recommend this book, but beware the rapids at the beginning before you reach the greater journey downstream.
And yet the content is light - often too light. The author is too often led astray by insignificant details that have little or nothing to do with "Americans in Paris". It was hard work getting through the first 100-150 pages, as was the last bit. Only the central piece stands out, when the description of the Americans in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Paris Commune provides a vivid and riveting grander narrative, upon which the embroidery on the Americans in Paris becomes more than peripheral or self-absorbed. Read just that part if you must read this book; skip the rest.
McCullough is an excellent biographer, and an excellent narrative historian. However, this book, trying to cover such a broad topic as Americans in Paris in the 19th century, he seems to almost flounder. Many of the chapters are excellent, and his usual skill shines here.
Unfortunately, some of the order and presentation of all this information seems erratic. There are lots of interesting narrative stories, and background information, and you really get a narrative feel for Paris. But again, things just seem almost thrown together.
I'd give it 3.5 or 4 stars if possible, but I'm forced to round down. If it was any other author, it would be a guaranteed 4. Don't take it too hard, David, I still love you.