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Book Review: The Greater Journey

David McCullough exploration of 19th-century Americans in Paris

Particularly well realized is McCullough’s portrait of the Irish-born American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who arrived in the City of Light in 1867 seeking to hone his technique. He became such a master of detail that his monumental bronze renderings of Admiral David Farragut and Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman for New York City, completed with the help of master French artisans, seem about to spring to life. The account of how Saint-Gaudens sculpted his Shaw Memorial — a giant bronze frieze commemorating the bravery under fire of an African-American Union regiment that launched a frontal attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor in 1863 — makes for a story nearly as memorable as a glimpse of the work itself (now installed in Boston’s Public Garden).

In July 1870, French jingoists persuaded their Emperor Napoleon III to attack neighboring Prussia. Napoleon, who privately opposed the war, should have kept his own counsel; within just two months the Prussians had counterattacked within bombardment range of Paris, and chaos and brutality ruled the streets. City residents of all nationalities suffered extreme privations from then until order was restored in May 1871.

An extraordinary hero emerged in the form of the American minister to France, Elihu B. Washburne. After the Germans sealed off the city on September 19, (268) stranding thousands of Americans in the French capital, Washburne secure their safe departure by issuing safe-conduct passes and arranging for special trains to run night and day. But he didn’t stop there. Some 30,000 German laborers and their families, and many of them destitute, had been ordered to leave Paris, but with no trains running, they risked becoming the victims of vigilante justice. Washburne and his tiny legation staff worked tirelessly to repatriate them as well.

McCullough’s account of these wartime perils is suspenseful, yes. But Washburne clearly falls outside the author’s stated framework: He was no earnest young artist mastering his métier, but rather the official representative of an ally growing into a rival. As such, his appearance on McCullough’s stage reinforces the perception that human-interest anecdotes were included whether they served the stated concept of The Greater Journey or not. A selective reading of the book’s accreted anecdotes, however, should give the reader a new appreciation for the transatlantic allure of Gallic savoir-vivre — and the American drive to adapt it to the needs of a striving young country.

Bill Lenderking is a freelance writer and retired Foreign Service officer.

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