Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough


   David McCullough has written a brilliant chronicling of Americans who traveled to Paris in the 19th century.  Before reading his book, I never realized how many famous Americans lived in Paris and how living there impacted their careers.

     In the 1830’s Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel Morse and John Fennimore Cooper kicked off the migration.  Call me ignorant, but I didn’t know that Morse was an artist.  He spent countless hours in the Louvre painting and receiving commissions stateside for his work.  Cooper wrote many of his most important novels there.  Holmes and many other American medical students studied medicine.

     The invention that Morse is most famous for, the telegraph and the code named after him, was conceived in Paris.  Later, P.T. Barnum and his famous Tom Thumb toured the city to great acclaim.  The pianist and composer Gottschalk spent many years performing in Paris.

     Other artists that came were John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  Mary Cassatt, who became good friends with Edgar Degas, was the only American accepted into the Impressionist fold. 

     In addition to the artists, architects, and musicians, important politicians left their mark.  Elihu Washburne was the only international diplomat who stayed in Paris during the political upheaval and wars during the 1870’s.  He helped protect and provide for many native and foreign people caught in the crossfire. 

    We don’t just learn of the Americans’ accomplishments but of their lives:  how they spent their free time, the sort of friendships they made, their characters and personalities.

     McCullough does a meticulous job gathering notes, letters, and diaries.  His bibliography takes up almost a quarter of the book.  His writing is fluid and eloquent.  This is no dry recitation of facts but a vibrant, breathing, compilation of the different lives and events that shaped Paris and the Americans that lived there.  Reading The Greater Journey paints a vivid picture as rich and voluptuous as an oil painting by Cezanne.  One can see and experience a Paris of the past.  The only way anyone will be able to do so now.

    For anyone interested in history and how one culture is shaped by another, this book is highly recommended.

Further links:

Cleopatra: A Life

Or buy on Kindle for $9.99




Brian Joseph said...

This looks to be a great book!

I also never knew that Morse was an artist. We hear so much abbot Americans migrating to France post WW I, but I never know that artists also traveled there so much in the 19th century.

I have read a couple of books by McCullough. Though I found 1776 to be a little disapointing due to lack of detail, I thought that "John Adams" was outstanding.

Man of la Book said...

I just saw this book last night on 60 Minutes, glad to hear it lives up to the expectations.

Sharon Wilfong said...

A friend of mine told me I need to read McCullough's John Adams. One more book for the TBR pile.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I don't have cable so I'll have to find the episode on youtube.

Carol N Wong said...

I have the audio version of this book and have been putting it off because there are so many discs. I saw the 60 Minutes Show too and now eager to listen to in 2013.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Carol: It is a longish book. I suppose if you had a long commute to work or were to go on a road trip you could bring them along and listen:)Whatever you decide to do you will find it worth your while. Have a good day!