Every time David McCullough puts his fingers to the typewriter that he uses to write with, he seems to transform our understanding of the topic he is studying. Whether it was President Harry Truman or for me Mornings on Horseback, I have walked away from his books with an enlightened feel for the topic that I have only been able to achieve with very few authors. James Michener is one who comes to mind immediately.
With this book, The Greater Journey, the author has now thoroughly engaged the reader with a topic seldom written about but very deserving of study. It is only natural that we as Americans feel we live in a self centered world; after all we have 2 vast oceans that have protected our shores from invasion for several centuries, and probably will for several more. It simply does not occur to us that since our beginnings, many Americans have chosen to spend considerable time abroad, and in some cases decades of their lives.
During the 1800's and specifically from 1830 until 1900, there was a wave of intellectual migration that headed not west to America, but east to Paris, France from America. Keep in mind that we now sit in a country that is preeminent in the world, financially, intellectually, and probably culturally as well. Back then, we were just forming as a nation. The Indian wars were still in process, and the Civil War would also take place, which became the second re-creation of the United States. McCullough is totally aware of this comparison and makes wise use of it throughout this 456 page book composed of 14 distinct chapters separated into 3 parts, followed by a wonderful epilogue, and a very useful bibliography. The author understands history, and is always mindful of the relative positions of different nations. During this period we were not yet the top dog that we were to become after World War I. Europe still controlled the world's greatest universities and they were already centuries old.
If you are going to read this book in a physical format as opposed to the Kindle digital version, you are in for a treat because the paper chosen is exquisite, and the font selection is superb. If you are an older reader as I am, you will appreciate the time that was taken to design the book appropriately for readers that still relish a physically well made book, and that's what we have here.
This is the story of a 70 year period in the history of Paris, and the scores of Americans who occupied it, lived there, and helped participate in the transformation of what is called the city of light. It is also the story of scores of for want of a better word can be called expatriate Americans, although many of them did return to their native United States at different times.
McCullough is one of the few authors who truly captures the essence of an environment and then proceeds to envelop it with a reality that absorbs and perhaps even demands our attention as readers. His description of the relationship between James Fennimore Cooper and Samuel F.B. Morse and their joy in living in this magnificent city and the effects it had on their work will remain in the reader's soul for many years after the book is put back on the shelf. When Morse painted his masterpiece, it was done in Paris, and perhaps after reading this book, one realizes it could only have been done in Paris.
The city of lights already had vast boulevards, and extraordinary parks decades before the United States designed them. Indeed, New York City's Central Park which would be created later in the century would take much from Paris, and other European cities. The Americans who would go to Paris and spend years there would recall later after returning to the United States the joy of the parks, the energy of the city itself and the sheer unequalled cultural delights that embodied Paris. Visually we can still see much of this in the work of the Impressionist School of painting.
I found the author's handling of Mary Cassatt, who was a Philadelphia born daughter of American socialites who went on to be an illustrious painter as a principal part of the Impressionist school, to be particularly well done. Her relationship to Edgar Degas the renowned painter of the ballet and horses, as well as landscaping is thoroughly chronicled in the book. McCullough's ability to weave life into life, with Paris as the focal point constantly holding the book together in such a way that the reader feels compelled to continue to read, not pausing to eat is what in the end keeps the author at the pinnacle of his profession today.
It is obvious that this book was a labor of love for the author. It comes shining through with the admiration that McCullough holds for both Oliver Wendell Homes the American medical student in Paris, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a name we all recognize. He even takes the time to take us through the time that Mark Twain spent in this wonderful city.
Not only was Paris transformed by the Americans that occupied it during this century, but Paris itself went through extraordinary changes and development. Kings re-invented the city several times during this century. Vast numbers of poor were displaced and sent to the country. It was invaded during this period as well. Later vast tree lined streets and boulevards would be created that became the envy of Europe. The Louvre would be increased in size enormously in an attempt to make it the most important museum on the entire continent, and France would succeed in this effort.
McCullough intertwines the story of Paris, its growth, its impact on the Americans and what the Americans brought back to America as a result, into a book in such an imaginative way that the reader will find himself revisiting this book from time to time. In the end the book is riveting, and this is a phrase I find myself continuing to use every time I pick up a book written by this author.
Many lives are captured in this masterpiece. They include George Healy the portrait painter, Nathaniel Hawthorne whose writings still continue to occupy many a college freshman's late nights, and future American Senator Charles Sumner who would have his views on slavery refined while living in Paris. Indeed he became an abolitionist as a result of his Parisian experience.
Prior to reading The Greater Journey, I believed I had a good understanding of 19th century Paris. Having studied the art of that period, going to the Louvre, and sitting in on lectures dealing with Paris in the 1800's, I looked forward to seeing what this author could add to the story. I did not expect what I got, which was to have him blow away my understanding and replace it with something that came alive and stood on many different legs of understanding, but isn't that what great writing can do. It can simply make things come alive again. You feel as though you are there, and McCullough puts us right there in the thick of the action.
Although it is not the whole story, if you have any interest at all in understanding the transformative art period that was the Impressionist movement it is vividly captured here in the lives of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt. David McCullough is already an acclaimed author with two Pulitzers and two national Book Awards, and it looks like with this book, he's got another Pulitzer coming down the pike. Thank you for reading this review.
Richard C. Stoyeck
on May 26, 2011
If you read only one sentence of this review, please know that I think The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris is downright excellent and I'd highly recommend it!
As much as I enjoyed the books John Adams and 1776, there is something refreshing in seeing living treasure David McCullough depart from the 1700s, an era he knows vividly, and take a tromp through fresh ground. The Greater Journey was so good, so flowing and fast-paced I read through it a little too quickly, in one day to be exact, and emerged with the feeling that I cheated myself of what more properly should have been a lingering experience. Therefore, I plan to read it again in smaller bits in the near future!
That aside, this was among the more interesting history books I've opened in a long while. McCullough's style has never seemed sharper, more conversational, more authoritative or more learned. Where else is the City of Lights examined in such minute detail and from quite this angle? The museums, the streets, the gardens, the parties and salons, and most of all the people, natives and American alike are examined under the microscopic gaze of this finest of living historians. What emerges is an explanation of why Paris was so alluring then as today, and how their time spent there, often brief visits, shaped some of America's leading personages into the figures they went on to be in life. So many famous names leap out from these pages that it proves a who's who of a time and place. The life stories here are as good as biographies anywhere, and there's something to be learned on just about every page as McCullough makes time for many asides and anecdotes about those who passed through the French capital before and during la Belle Époque
To read this book is to feel a part of Paris 150 years ago, and that is the highest praise I think it is possible to give any historian! Well done, David McCullough, well done!
Ever since I picked up "John Adams", I have been an avid fan of David McCullough. His biography of Harry Truman is perhaps the best one I've ever read. McCullough has a knack for taking people or things that perhaps have escaped the popular limelight (such as the Panama Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge) and writes a completely captivating history of them. You do not simply read a McCullough book, you experience it.
When I first heard that McCullough was penning a new work focusing on the impact that Parisian life had on Americans of the 19th century, I was quite excited to say the least. And when I was offered the chance to do a pre-release review of "The Greater Journey," I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity. McCullough did not disappoint.
"The Greater Journey" varies in focus from his other works. While the majority of his previous books have focused on political and engineering aspects of American history, "The Greater Journey" instead highlights many of the artistic influences of American history (Adams, Jefferson and Franklin get barely a mention). Although working with a large cast of characters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Cassatt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Harriet Beecher Stowe, McCullough spotlights a few in more detail. Although Samuel F. B. Morse is more widely known for inventing the telegraph, McCullough spends more time discussing Morse's artistic work in the Louvre. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of such memorials as the Farragut, Sherman and Robert Gould Shaw Memorials, was greatly influenced by his time in Paris. Of particular interest to me was the account of Elihu Washburne's efforts during the Franco-Prussian War to protect French, American and German citizens. With each of these and others, McCullough writes of how their time in Paris influenced their artistic abilities or, as was the case with Charles Sumner, their political/humanitarian views.
When I first heard of the subject matter of the book, I wasn't sure it would be as interesting as McCullough's other works that dealt with more sweeping changes such as "1776." But while watching an interview of McCullough about the book, he made a statement that convinced me otherwise. He said "History is much more than just politics and generals. History is about life. History is human. And music, art, literature, poetry, theatre, science, the whole realm of the human spirit is all part of history."
As captivating and readable as his other books, "The Greater Journey" offers a unique glimpse of the more cultural side of American history and the huge role Paris life played in shaping this culture. (5/5 stars)
(Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book for review.)
on August 12, 2011
This study of the profound influence of Paris on the development of American science and art is a very curious book: Frequently a series of unsatisfying vignettes, with an occasionally dazzling series of chapters sharply focused on an individual or a particular set of circumstances--not characteristic of Mr. McCullough's usual writing at all. Also uncharacteristic of this author were factual errors in the first twenty or so pages: Henri II is not buried at Rouen, as Mr. McCullough states, but at Fontevrault Abbey, and Louis Phillipe did not work in Boston as a waiter in an oyster house, although that somehow is a very pleasing idea. (He lived upstairs, and taught French downstairs to young ladies, in the building which later became Boston's Union Oyster House.) When someone errs in something I do know something about, I worry about accuracy in areas I don't know anything about.
The Greater Journey is well worth reading, however, if only for the chapters on medical education in Paris, and how the young Americans who studied medicine there brought back innovative scientific ideas to the United States; for the chapters on Augustus St. Gaudens; but most of all for the chapters on Elihu Washburne, the American minister to France at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. Mr. Washburne well deserves to be restored to our national memory for his integrity and courage, now perhaps more than ever--an inspiring tale, well told. I wish more of the book were at this level, instead of reading like a very long passenger list for a transatlantic packet or steamer. (I wish Mr. McCullough had included a time line!)
An uncharacteristically spotty job.
PS Don't get this book on Kindle if you'll miss the numerous and beautiful color plates!
on May 27, 2011
When I first heard about the topic of this new McCullough book, I was truly disappointed. He is one of the greatest living American writers of history, perhaps the greatest, so why focus on a few people of modest historical renown who all happened to be in Paris in the 1800's? It didn't seem like a topic with enough pizzazz to keep my interest.
I was wrong. This is a wonderful book that develops the characters (as all McCullough books do) and shows just how fascinating the men and women are. And to understand how their time in Paris shaped America is both clever and intriguing; in fact, it's pure genius by McCullough to see that thread of history. I'm thankful he shared it with the rest of us.
Loved the book and only wish it were longer!
"Learn to do good;" -- Isaiah 1:17 (NKJV)
This is the most engaging history book I've read so far in 2011.
While I was in college, I focused my studies on 19th century France because almost every possible variation of human history occurred there at some point between 1789 and 1914. In the course of those studies, I became very familiar with how French people and Europeans saw Paris. But it never occurred to me to apply the special lens of how visiting and expatriate Americans experienced the City of Light. I feel extremely grateful to David McCullough for conceiving of and brilliantly executing this book.
I should mention that I have read in great detail how 18th and 20th century Americans saw Paris. How I missed reading about the 19th century is beyond me.
One of the fascinating themes is how Americans went from being humble learners, seeking to gain from greater French knowledge of the arts and medicine, to being influential innovators bringing new influences (such as Morse's telegraph, Edison's electric lights, and John Singer Sargent's portraiture). Paris itself stretched to become a bigger stage on which technical progress was shared through the various exhibitions.
To me one of the best aspects of this book was becoming a little bit familiar with fascinating Americans who I didn't know much about before such as painter George P. A. Healy, American minister to France Elihu B. Washburne, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Naturally, Paris itself is the biggest character and David McCullough treats her with proper reverence.
I was particularly charmed by the descriptions of difficult Atlantic crossings in sailing ships, riding in French stagecoaches (diligences) to Paris, and how the newly arrived reacted to seeing their first French cathedrals, especially the one at Rouen.
However well you know Paris and many of the characters presented in this book, thanks to the fine writing of David McCullough you will learn more and enjoy yourself when you read his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. McCullough focuses on the 19th century, 1830-1900, when many Americans of various professions headed to Paris for education and inspiration. The huge cast of characters he presents provides a range of experiences that McCullough describes in lively prose that continually entertains and informs. The city of light shines, even while embattled, and the camaraderie and vivacity of the characters provide a range of drama that will absorb every reader interested in that time, that place, and any of the people who were there.
Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
on June 18, 2011
David McCullough is America's premier writer on history, with a big fan base for his books on historical figures (Harry S Truman, John Adams) and historical events (Jonestown Flood). This book has been widely reviewed as being disappointing by comparison. That is because this is not a book with a single focus. As close as it comes to a thesis is that the small numbers of Americans who ventured to Paris in the 19th Century were as influential in shaping the American character as the large number who ventured westward at the same time, but that idea is only indirectly stated.
The book is best as a collection of small facts: The great "French" Impressionist painter Degas had an American mother (who knew?) or that the "American" portrait artist, John Singer Sargent, lived his entire childhood and adolescence in Europe, dragged about by vagabond parents. He never set foot in his homeland until he was eighteen and spoke English with a British accent.
I have come to like this book because, like an impressionist painting, it explores Paris through an accretion of small points and almost coincidental connections. It is quite unlike his forceful explorations of personalities and events in previous books.
For the Francophile this is going to be a wonderful addition to the library. It will also have great resonance for art lovers. For history buffs, however, this may be a disappointing departure from McCullough's more typical style.
on July 30, 2011
I bought this book because David McCullough's books are always a fascinating way to learn history. I have traveled to Paris a few times myself, so I looked forward to it.
Unlike his other books, though, instead of telling a single story, this is a collection of anecdotes, describing the many different reactions Americans had to Paris. It is interesting, for example, to see the difference between the kinds of people who traveled there at the beginning of the century-young (usually broke) adventurers-and those who traveled later-the wealthier ones.
Mr. McCullough tells the stories well, and it was interesting to imagine these people leaving North America for the first time, only to discover that people out there don't think like we do. Instead of the rough frontier, Paris was a fascinating collection of urban architecture and people. After all, none of them had the benefit of brochures or other guides to give them an idea of what to expect.
The travelers by and large showed themselves well, however, and America was well represented.
The thing that was remarkable to me about the book was how much it drove home the fact that my American education had left me quite ignorant of the history of 19th Century France. The successions of revolutions, the Prussian siege of Paris, the Paris Commune--These were all new to me.
I have recently learned, however, that my lack of historical education left me vulnerable to Mr. McCullough's biases. I mentioned to my European wife that I was learning about the Paris Commune as a source of great brutality, and when it was clear that that was all I had learned about it, she was shocked. Not that the brutality wasn't there, but the Paris Commune had an impact on world history that went far beyond the two months of difficulties described by Mr. McCullough. My wife required me to do some homework.
I started with the Encyclopedia Britannica. There was no mention of it. Hmm. Telling.
So, I went to Wikipedia. There is a most interesting and comprehensive article there.
It turns out that what happened was important. Yes, it was brutal. This, however, was the first time the working classes had taken power during the industrial revolution. The aristocracy was being overturned by thousands of workers. This was an inspiration for Karl Marx.
In the course of its short tenure, a few decrees were implemented:
- separation of church and state
- abolition of night work I ht hundreds of Paris bakeries.
- the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service,
- the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner.
- plus several others in the same category.
Women organized the first feminist movement in Europe.
Yes, the aristocracy took it back after two months.
But this was the first rumbling of a real recognition that the industrial revolution, with its benefits to the capitalist owners and its hardships for the workers was not an entirely happy affair.
Of course, the wealthy Americans who could afford to travel to Paris were not conscious of this, and since Mr. McCullough's book is focusing on their personal experiences, he may be forgiven for not having put the Paris Commune in this perspective.
But, as I said, this is one of the few opportunities for me to learn something of the history of Paris, and I feel short-changed for not having seen at least an acknowledgement of the significance of this admittedly terrible experience.
One other complaint: In the first part of the book, he takes great pains to describe the experiences of the medical students, including Oliver Wendell Homes. Having the opportunity to study at the world's most famous hospitals was a true privilege. At one point he does mention that, in spite of all the work done to expand the body of knowledge of medicine, most people who came into the hospital died. But it is only a passing mention.
Ok, this isn't the book in which to describe lonely campaign of the Hungarian Doctor Ignac Semmelweis in his attempt to have doctors in Vienna wash their hands after handling corpses and before touching patients. He did extensive study and effectively proved that disease could be passed from doctors and nurses to patients. But the medical establishment would have none of it. What Mr. McCullough could have pointed out, however, was that it was the American, Oliver Wendell Holmes, based on his experience in Paris, who took up the campaign when he returned to the US. As with the European medical community, it was a hard sell in the United States as well, but Oliver Wendell Holmes was the champion that eventually got it recognized.
As always, Mr. McCullough's book is interesting and entertaining to read, but his carelessness with history costs him two stars.
on June 16, 2011
One of the reasons I ordered a copy of Mr. McCullough's new book is that I sensed a different type of history book from this author. One of the criteria for Mr. McCullough to write a book is that it must be of interest to him. He did start a biography of Picasso, as yet unfinished. Mr. McCullough did not feel Picasso's life was very interesting, "...he painted a lot of paintings, but he didn't really do much.", so David McCullough moved on to another more interesting topic. In this book Americans from the years 1830 to 1900 interest the author very much. These are not people such as Jefferson, Franklin, or Adams, all of whom we know a great deal concerning their time in Paris. He has said "I also feel very strongly that history ought to be seen as a great deal more than just politics and the military.".
He also states that Augustus Saint-Gaudens (a sculptor), to be one of his favorite characters, I also suspect that Samuel Morse fits that category too. Again our author states: "Remember, there were no schools of art here, no museums. If you wanted to become an architect, you went to Paris.". It is also of interest to me that not only is this group of talented and educated people, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Cassatt, for example, notable but so too are their letters and the words they left us.
I don't know that I feel as strongly as does David McCullough "that this period brought to France a group who are among the most interesting and important figures in American life" yet I did very much enjoy spending time reading about their experiences.
I looked favorably on this book from the very first review and the book does not disappoint. I also feel that since this is an atypical book for him, it may not appeal to some readers, however, I am certainly not one of them. For Mr. McCullough to write this book I knew that he found this group of people much to his interest. After reading his comments concerning the background behind the writing of this book, it was one I wanted to read. It might be one you might want to read, too.