Monday, July 04, 2011

McCullough's Greater Journey an exuberant, sprawling history

73. The Greater Journey by David McCullough

The Greater Journey is a sprawling, exuberant history of Americans in Paris during a 70-year span of the 19th Century.

It's hard to say this is McCullough's best book -- he does have those two Pulitzers after all -- but it's easy to understand why it's his favorite. 

The book overflows with energy and inspiration, creativity and promise, so well does McCullough capture the spirit of Paris and the Americans who briefly called it home.

We meet novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse (famous in this country for inventing the telegraph, but who was a bold and muscular painter), the portraitist George P.A. Healey, the medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes, writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, future Senator Charles Sumner and the American ambassador Elihu Washburne.

It is a large, sprawling cast that's not limited to Americans.  Paris, its citizens and sites -- from the Louvre to the Champs-Elysee to the Eiffel Tower (which appears surprisingly late in the story) -- also play a major role in McCullough's history.

McCullough's principal contention is that 19th Century Paris -- from 1830 to 1900 -- helped shape these Americans and consequently helped shape America.  McCullough's American cast, and more, returned to their homeland having increased their knowledge, enhanced their expertise and awakened to an awareness of a wider world and a new perspective on that world. 

It was in Paris, for example, that Sumner, who became a leading proponent for the abolition of slavery, first began to understand that the way blacks were treated in American was not part of the natural order, but an outgrowth of custom.

In entertaining fashion, McCullough leads us to re-examine the critical role that France played in the America we celebrate today.


  1. I've had this one on my wish list since pre-publication. I'll have to try and move it up on the list.

  2. This book is not light reading, particularly the section about the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. My interests include history, art, and France, and I learned something about each of these things through this book. McCullough does an excellent job of presenting the savagery which stains French history as well as reinforcing our image of Paris as an icon of culture and delicacy.