24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
David McCullough has written his share of interesting and informative history that is historically solid but also appeals to a mass market. This isn't one of his better works.
It covers "Americans in Paris" during the early and middle years of the 19th century. It includes people such as James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel Morse (while he was still a painter, prior to the telegraph), and architect Richard Morris Hunt. We also meet some French characters including Lafayette, de Toqueville, and Louis Philippe, last king of France.
There are some interesting details, but there's really no theme. One problem is the strictly chronological treatment. Each chapter involves a new group of people arriving and settling in, discovering Paris, doing their thing, and then, often, leaving. So many chapters read "A attended medical school lectures every day and meanwhile B was painting at the Louvre." Then the next chapter, "A was checking out the paintings at the Louvre while his friend B attended medical lectures."
The story here doesn't resemble the extensive literature about the early 20th century artists or the "Lost Generation," where the characters' interactions with each other form a large part of the story. Some of the characters in McCullough's book knew each other, while others never met. But there's no real theme holding the book together and many of the chapters get somewhat repetitious.
Clearly, McCullough (or, more likely, his research team and ghost writers) assembled a formidable amount of research. But the book reads like the McCullough team assembled a file of 3x5 cards with all the characters, events, and quotes they found, put them all in chronological order, then went through the 3x5 cards and wrote connecting sentences.
"Paris" might be a unifying theme for such a book, but even the city comes across as pretty bland. There are good descriptions of the Louvre and some of the leading citizens of the city. And a number of times McCullough says "so-and-so enjoyed walking all over the city" or "such and such was really enchanted by the city" or "for the rest of his life, hem and haw remembered his years in Paris." But even the city fails to come to life. There's a real peril for history writers (and other writers) who become a successful industry and must meet a continuing demand for timely, interesting stories. Just poor Lucille Ball in the candy factory, sometimes the production line just demands too much. This book appears to be an example of this peril.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2011
There were very interesting things every few pages--that's for sure, and that's why I'm giving it 3 stars.
I don't want to be mean, but it's poorly written and edited. I don't want to be mean because--in the Acknowledgments at the end--the author lists a bunch of people who helped with the editing, typing and retyping of the many drafts of the manuscript, and all the other work--so apparently the book was a huge amount of work, and everyone might have tried very hard for the best product possible. But if they would have simply turned over a final version to a diligent disinterested editor (told not to edit out substantive content) it could have been given a good final editing. I had to keep re-reading sentences, and some things about the writing just kept irritating me over and over again.
I agree with the other comments posted about the book being a bunch of mini-biographies. But again, there were very interesting Paris and France-related things every few pages. Although one could just go to Wikipedia and find a nice biography of each person (which would probably be a lot more detailed and accurate), I really liked all the interesting historical things about Paris and France.
Something that subtracted from the credibility was the gimmick (used by other American writers, too) of introducing some people with kooky little physical descriptions (padding?): As just one random, small, example, we read this about George Peter Alexander Healy: "His physical appearance was also in his favor. He stood about five feet eight and had by this time, in the Paris mode, succeeded in growing a small mustache. He parted his full head of dark brown hair down the middle and the beginnings of a frown, a vertical crease between the eyebrows of the kind that comes from much close concentation with the eyes, gave what might have been simply a handsome face an appealing degree of intensity. All this he captured quite well in his early self-portraits. In time he would wear eyeglasses and add a small goetee. In self-portraits done some years afterward, he looks very much like Eugene Delacroix." Well, I looked up Healy on Wikipedia, and he did not part his hair down the middle, and the above goofy (non-)description just totally does not match the photos anyway.
Another thing: I wish some historians would criticize the book, because I had many vague doubts about accuracy. I felt (with no authority) that the book was Disney-like, over-simplifified, and too nicey-nicey. I kept wondering about all the real things left out.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
"..., those who worked, traveled, and simply escaped to Paris in the 19th century were enchanted by its history, culture, and creativity. The longer they stayed, the more they became entranced with a city full of exciting ideas, new horizons, and intriguing possibilities." Michael Taube
McCullough most recent hit, he entitled, 'The Greater Journey', is about Americans who dwelt, lived in, and loved Paris during the Nineteenth century. Throughout "The Greater Journey," David McCullough chronicles the adventures of Americans in Paris during the century before Hemingway and his peers became 'a lost generation'. The eloquent narrator describes the varied impact on the curious visitors over a period of seven decades. Most of early American sojourners merely spoke few French words, and knew little about French culture. They were thrilled by Paris as a continuing experience of enjoyment, and learned to take time to savor life. They, without doubt, have "walked along Avenue des Champs-Élysées, went to the Musée du Louvre, and ate wonderful meals." Most of them worked hard; but secured time to attend the theater and opera, and tour the Louvre.
Their life-changing adventures played a vital role in transforming the course of the United States history, claims the writer who was inspired in the writing of this enlightening book. Those curious adventurer Americans, are identified, in common, as having very little prior personal knowledge of Paris, the city of lights, except through news papers they read at their homes. "Paris is the city to which good Americans go to learn that they really do love peanut butter." What those Americans took home with them in these years was about shaping art and principles, tasks with which France assisted by dispatching the Statue of Liberty and thus bestowed a greater gift as well. McCullough concludes that while the United States and France may have encountered at times, few political and financial upheavals, the Franco-American relations and cultures have an established mutual affinity.
McCullough has achieved another impressive stage of his legacy, writing insightful books, here he is discerning the historical relation with a massive reader response. The eminent American historian, two-time Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award winner, also recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is an outstanding author, and engaging speaker. The hard tasks author has recovered France's vital relation, and exceptional function in American history. Furthermore, he has established that, we would not have built such a great nation without the French touch, from the earnest military advise to the impressive D.C. planning, whose influence has profoundly shaped our life and destiny. In fact, he strongly advocates that, American history was literally forged in Paris.
In a recent interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, David McCullough, stated that, "Washington set the standards for behavior, integrity and patriotism of the best kind, not the flag-waving kind, but true love of county." From the same perspective of truth to America he confirmed what he wrote in this book that, "In 1830, we did not have museums, 'with art hanging down the walls'. We did not know much about architecture, our great universities did not offer any studies in the field." But what baffled me was what he restated, "Medicine was by far more advanced in Paris; American students studied medicine in the Sorbonne for free!"
"For more than 40 years, David McCullough has brought the past to life in books distinguished by vigorous storytelling and vivid characterizations. ..... Subsequent works showcased McCullough's gift for full-scale biography, most notably in the Pulitzer Prize winners..." -- Wendy Smith, L A Times
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2011
I am a big Mccullough fan. I think i own everything he's ever written. Of course, this means I read this book immediately when it came out, and I have to say i'm just the tiniest bit disappointed.
It's good. It's even very good: the social history (which is Mccullough's forte) is excellent, and for someone who didn't know much about 19th century Paris and American-French relations in those years, there are a lof of insights here.
But, it doesn't "hang together" as well as his best works (like The Great Bridge or the Path Between the Seas). It reads more like a series of vingettes than a flowing narrative. In that sense it reminds me of "Brave Companions".
As usual for Mccullough it's superbly written, the prose is crisp and the characters are well-drawn. The artists, doctors, diplomats, and writers he describes keep your attention and the accounts of their adventures in Paris are interesting.
I guess it's inevitable - this book is not about a single project, it's not a biography (like mornings on horseback or Truman) and so it's a bit more diffuse. So when I say it's not up to Mccullough's best, that's not in any way to say it's not good. It just means his best is very good.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2011
THE GREATER JOURNEY is WONDERFUL! Set in the 1800's, the transformation of Paris and the Americans who lived there and influenced music, art, literature, poetry, science, and acting. This book is an exciting, clever and intriguing glimpse into the more cultural side of American history and the meaningful role Paris life played in shaping our culture. The unequalled cultural delights that was Paris with its spectacular boulevards, and mystifying parks which decades later shaped New York City's Parks, energizes the essence of human spirit. Riveting! McCullough captured the essence of Paris in this unforgettable masterpiece!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The City of Lights captivates Americans like no other. As true as this has been in the 20th century, it was equally true in the 19th as well. For many Americans of education, culture and means during the 19th century, time in Paris was nearly indispensable. Not only writers, artists, sculptors, but medical doctors and many others went to Paris to broaden their tastes, perspectives and professional training. There they savored art, architecture, music, intellectual discourse and even the discovery of a more relaxed way to enjoy life, which were all available in far more abundance than America offered even in its larger cities. David McCullough's The Greater Journey looks at the many prominent 19th century Americans who spent part of their lives in Paris and catalogs the details of their sojourns.
As he has done in numerous works, McCullough once again displays his great skill in inserting his reader into the story. He does not neglect the travel itself, explaining the nuances and rigors of 19th century transatlantic crossings and the coach rides needed to get his subjects to their destination. Once in Paris, we read of the city's many delights. Gastronomy, art, architecture, society, music, theater, etc. are all relayed in a vivid manner sure to delight many readers, particularly Francophiles.
To be sure, Paris had its share of disappointments. Charles Sumner, later to become a US Senator and leading abolitionist detested the constant presence of soldiers in the city. Educator Emma Willard was distraught at the high rate of child abandonment and the sight of parentless infants in the hospital. Still, the vast majority of the book is consumed with the Americans' many delights in what the city offered.
Rather than the travellers, however, the book's ultimate protagonist is the city of Paris itself. The capital of Europe in a sense, it was truly a mandatory destination not just for the arts but other learned professions during the 19th century. What's all too lacking, however, is WHY this was. McCullough slights the city's history and the reason for its great preeminence in nearly all facets of learning in most cases (medicine is an exception - the willingness of female patients to submit to examinations by male doctors and the easy availability of cadavers were the major reasons Paris was a major center for medical education). This detracted from my enjoyment of the book. In addition, he does not give us a great sense of how and to what extent "The Greater Journey" impacted American arts and letters (again, medicine is the exception). The Parisian influence on the US was surely significant given the importance of the Americans who travelled there and back, but McCullough doesn't always give us a clear idea of how or to what extent this was passed on after their arrival back in the United States.
Interestingly, however, McCullough relates that their time in Paris often reinvigorated the Americans' self-identity and pride in their own homeland rather than adopting a view if French or European superiority as might be expected. Why this is, McCullough doesn't venture an explanation.
Overall, however, readers will delight in the Parisian experience of the book's subjects and those without a background in 19th century American letters, arts and sciences (in this I count myself) will learn a great deal. One wishes for a writer of McCullough's gifts of clear storytelling and a little bit more analytical ability and inquisitiveness, but most will find the Greater Journey highly enjoyable, as I did.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2011
Did you know a bicycle maker named Armand Peugeot introduced a French-built automobile in 1891 and by 1895 more than 200 Peugeots and some Renaults were being driven around Paris! Who designed and built the Eiffel Tower? (amazing read). Oh yes, and we are reminded often that "springtime in Paris" was a wonderful experience for Americans during the 1800's. Read why!
A lengthy book - 456 pages, gorgeous pictures, source notes and a generous bibliography. Why did several talented American men and women brave the long treacherous ocean voyage to live and study in Paris? Depending on your age, education, and interests you will either find this book magnificent or...a bit disappointed. There are so many facts and long descriptions of various writers, poets, sculptors, artists, doctors, etc. destined to become famous back in America after years of study in Paris...the reader needs time to process. Well, I did.
Divided in three parts covering 70 decades and best read in several sittings, I used an underline pencil, enjoyed the third part best, and learned quite a bit about World's Fair's in Paris, the inventions, the revolutions, the epidemics, the medical research, family life, language barriers and so much more. I enjoyed learning about the artists painting in the Louvre and the sculptures, architecture and the French government during that time.
I pre-ordered this book because the author is one of my favorites - he clearly enjoyed writing this "different" kind of book and re-acquainting Americans with James Fennimore Cooper, Elizbeth Blackwell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others in detail, as they made a "French connection". There are lots of surprises. Enjoy!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
David McCullough's "The Greater Journey" has transformed my perception of America's Independence Day. I spent a few hours on a 4th of July camping trip in Oregon's waterfall territory curled up with McCullough's latest work, and something just clicked as I read about Americans on their intellectual travels in the heart of European civilization. Reading about these Americans becoming themselves in this most continental of cities taught me much about what it has meant to be an American.
All types of American creative thinkers - writers, painters, sculptors, physicians, diplomats, etc. - spent their young adulthood in Paris, broadening their minds at the feet of Europe's great masters. McCullough lovingly describes the invigorating atmosphere of Paris and how it ignited the creative process for so many. And yet what comes through is that these artists all became more American by their time spent in Paris - invariably, these great thinkers came to appreciate their homeland and their fellow Americans more after spending time amid the splendours of the Illuminated City. This is not to say that they lorded their superiority over their Parisian hosts - far from it. But despite the charms of the city and their temporary neighbors, all these great Americans returned home to pursue their art, and to turn your back on the Paris of the 19th century took a great deal of will.
Well, not always - McCullough also describes the madness that took over Paris during the hellish days of the Commune, when Parisian streets ran with more blood than during the Terror or during the plague. During this period, one American, Elihu Washburne, earned the right to have schools named after him on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is a shame that he is all but forgotten in this country. Indeed, McCullough's book emphasizes that despite recent rancor, Paris and America are hopelessly intertwined by history and culture . . . something that should be remembered before the phrase "Freedom Fries" is ever considered again. To read on the 4th of July about the French building the Statue of Liberty is surprisingly moving.
"The Greater Journey" is not McCullough's best book - for my money, "The Great Bridge" will always have that honor. At times there can be a strain to find a common theme between the Parisian experiences of so many Americans. But there can be no question that Paris is a cause of America's artistic maturity, not a mere correlation. As Americans, we must appreciate Europe in general, and France in particular, to understand why we have become the people we are. McCullough has made that task both enjoyable and easy.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Edward Herrmann's presentation is excellent as always. I found much of the subject matter to be of only moderate interest to me. This is not a book (audio CD, actually) I would have picked up were it not for the previous material put out by both the author and the reader. If you are a fan of arts and literature you will really enjoy this. History fans like myself may find less of interest. As much as I normally enjoy David McCullough's work this would be my least favorite of his books due mostly to the subject matter.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
After finishing this book I've come to the conclusion that I enjoyed the overall premise but missed McCullough usual brillance. I've enjoyed almost all of his books and my favorites were his deep biographies and that is where I believe the struggle exist. This book is different and some people might not appreciate the change. I agree with a few other reviewers about the book not "speaking to you" like Truman or John Adams. It is amazing that the author is still so good at his craft at this late stage of his life and the research alone should be acknowledged. In summary, a different kind of book from one of America's great writers.