Book of the week: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

Among the cast in David McCullough's history of Americans in 19th century Paris are James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Samuel Morse, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

(Simon & Schuster, $37.50)

Oh, to be a young American in 19th-century Paris! said Stacy Schiff in The New York Times. Turning back the clock to a time long before backpacks and Eurail passes, before Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, historian David McCullough has created a portrait of the time that reads like “a book of spells.” In the 1830s, when his story begins, there were probably fewer than 1,000 Americans in Paris, and just about all of them shared a sense of pilgrimage, and of enchantment. The wine cost almost nothing, and the Parisians were unfailingly polite: At the Louvre, U.S. citizenship opened the doors during the five days each week that the museum was officially closed. A good thing, too, since Yankee expats of that generation were earnest students. Most who’d been drawn to Paris were there to study art or medicine, not the nightlife.

McCullough packs his early chapters “with marvelous anecdotes and word pictures,” said Max Byrd in We’re tossed on the Atlantic during these adventurers’ monthlong voyage to Le Havre, and are stunned to see through their eyes just how old the farms and cathedrals of the Old World truly are. The author’s large but “refreshingly original” cast contains some familiar names: novelists James Fenimore Cooper and Henry James, painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, inventor Samuel Morse and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. In many cases, we’re told, these travelers drew on their Parisian experiences to reshape America. Morse, who went to Paris a painter, left with the idea that would allow him to invent the telegraph. After studying at the Sorbonne alongside black medical students, Charles Sumner returned home to help spearhead the American abolitionist movement.

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It has to be said that The Greater Journey is “less compelling than McCullough’s other works,” said Bruce Watson in the San Francisco Chronicle. His subjects “are witnesses rather than makers of history,” and “the book has no plot” beyond the vague notion that 19th-century Paris functioned as adolescent America’s university. McCullough manages to produce “intermittent surprises” along the way—including a “chilling” account of what medicine looked like inside Paris’s ballyhooed academies and a description of the Prussians’ 1870 siege of the city that “reads like a good war novel.” More important is that “his love for the city comes through on every page,” which has to please Paris’s tourism bureau. It’s likely his 558-page mash note “will entice a whole new generation of Francophiles.”

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