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Book Review: The Greater Journey

David McCullough's exploration of 19th-century Americans in Paris

Take a few steps beyond Lafayette in the history books and Americans tend to gloss over the role France played in our surge from provincial experiment to world power. Intrigued by the unsung influence of la belle France as a sort of cultural tutor to the United States, historian David McCullough has written The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. His book is bountiful but, like its title, ultimately leaves you wanting. (The title stems from the book’s thesis that “after experiencing the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, these Americans embarked on a greater journey in the City of Light.”)

McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and eminent storyteller, chronicles the waves of aspiring American professionals drawn to Paris from 1830 to 1900 to master their various crafts. They arrived seeking instruction in art, architecture, education and medicine. France was the recognized leader of the West in those categories, and a beacon of sophistication for under-schooled Americans.

The author’s anecdotes colorfully detail the daily lives of these Americans abroad, yet too often they trail off into trivia. Readers will be fascinated by the 1833–1835 experiences of a young medical student named Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.), for example, who would return stateside to push medical reforms and contribute witty pieces to The Atlantic Monthly. But what bearing does it have on his medical or literary career to learn, as we do here, that his cramped Paris apartment on rue Monsieur-le-Prince had “a tile floor, a ‘very nice’ green carpet, a bed, a marble-topped bureau, a mahogany table, two mirrors, two armchairs and an ink stand”? Some judicious cutting would have sharpened many vignettes (and allowed the book to come in at fewer than 558 pages).

The bulk of Americans in 19th-century Paris were neither wealthy nor well-connected. Lacking much exposure to French culture in the U.S., few of them spoke the language on arrival. It’s not that they held themselves apart from (or above) the locals; it’s simply that the Paris transplants McCullough has chosen to spotlight were primarily dedicated souls, there to study and learn. This also explains why they shunned the city’s snobby, ingrown expatriate community.

McCullough has mined original manuscripts and scores of secondary sources to illustrate how these visitors overcame sickness, poverty, loneliness and cultural barriers to persevere in their studies. Some 700 Americans went to Paris for instruction in medicine, for instance, from 1830 to 1860; nearly all returned home to practice that profession. Indeed, their acquired knowledge spurred advances in surgical techniques, disease control, pain mitigation and patient survival that helped vault the U.S. into the top ranks of world medicine. (The French surgeons who mentored them were admired for their steady and dexterous hands — to watch them wield a scalpel, writes McCullough, was to “witness a great performance.”)

The author’s decision to tell his story chronologically makes for some staccato effects. For example, we meet John Singer Sargent, one of the world’s great portrait painters, in 1879 at the start of his career, then find tantalizing references to him and his work sprinkled throughout the rest of the book. For such a major figure, a thematic approach might have felt less disjointed.

Still, some stirring re-creations linger. McCullough is especially taken with the long friendship between James Fenimore Cooper, author of the “Leatherstocking Tales” and The Last of the Mohicans, and Samuel F. B. Morse, a major American artist whose 1838 invention of the telegraph would utterly eclipse his painting skills. Morse and Cooper first met at the White House in 1825, and they had stayed in intermittent contact since then. Only when both moved to Paris in 1831, however, did they begin to bond in earnest, discovering they had similar interests in art and literature — and similar experiences as Americans living in first Italy and then France.

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.