Aline Voldoire, Review of David McCullough's "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" (Simon & Schuster, 2011)


Aline Voldoire teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. She was recently awarded the Salo and Jeanette Baron Prize in Jewish Studies for her Columbia University dissertation, The Transnational Politics of French and American Jews, 1860-1920.

The Greater Journey is a masterful exploration of the experiences of Americans in Paris in between the 1830s and the end of the nineteenth century. Some, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, only came for a few months. Others, like Oliver Wendell Holmes or James Fenimore Cooper, stayed longer, sometimes for years. Some, like Charles Sumner or Samuel F. B. Morse, kept coming back, and a few, like George Healy and Mary Cassatt, ended up settling in Europe for good. They came alone or with their families, or like John Singer Sargent, were been born in Europe of expatriate American parents. The book provides wonderful vignettes of people and places, but it is much more than that.

The title in itself evokes the main idea of the book: by going East, toward “civilization,” these Americans achieved as much for themselves and for the United States as a nation as others did by going West and exploring American “wilderness.”

Beyond the title, McCullough does not present an overarching grand argument upfront (there is no formal introductory chapter). Instead, relying heavily on letters, diaries and personal accounts, he immerses the reader in the experiences of Americans in Paris, and lets the picture emerge and come together. McCullough is a master story teller, but his touch is light, and reading The Greater Journey feels like taking a stroll through a gallery with an expert and passionate guide. It is fitting that much of the book focuses on artists, as it reads like a good painting. Brush strokes of varying width and depth make for a textured and multi-layered tableau, which will leave different readers with their own particular experience of the book.

The Greater Journey is organized chronologically. Part One explores the 1830s; Part Two, the 1840s through 70s; and Part Three, the last thirty years of the century. Each part is in turn divided into chapters revolving either around an important aspect of the lives of Americans in Paris, or around an important historical event, such as the cholera epidemic of 1832 or the 1870 siege of Paris. By choosing to approach his subject chronologically, McCullough achieves both a greater depth and a more subtle picture than had he chosen to treat each individual in separate chapters. It also allows him to make the narrative richer by inserting shorter passages on characters whose experience in Paris did not warrant full examination, or for whom he had limited sources. More importantly, the portraits croisés approach allows him to explore the relationships between his subjects, and to bring dynamism to the story by highlighting the evolution of both the city and its American visitors.

Many Americans came to Paris to learn trades such as the arts or medicine, fields in which the city was unsurpassed. But whatever their reasons for going, being there was a “true awakening.” In Paris, Americans loved what was different from America.  And by different, they often meant better: food; parks and public spaces; culture (theater, opera); and in the words of Emma Willard, taking “time to savor life.” Being in France forced these Americans to rethink basic concepts such as “old," “good,” “beautiful,” “valuable,” etc. When they returned to America, they were changed and, McCullough implies, this change became an integral part of their contributions to their country.

Perhaps the most exciting quality of the book comes from McCullough’s ability to give life and substance to his subjects. He creates a real sense of intimacy between the reader and the subject and uses what these Americans expressed about their lives in Paris to illuminate much about their character and the shaping of who they were. As any expatriate by choice knows, living abroad and immersing oneself in another culture can be most exhilarating and fulfilling. The foreigner, removed from the familiar context that shaped him as an individual, can simultaneously achieve the freedom to transcend one's own socialized self, and, by the same token discover one's essential nature. It is why so many young Americans found it thrilling to be in Paris. It is also clear, in reading McCullough’s book, that it is why Charles Sumner went back to Paris when he found himself incapable of focusing on Washington politics after he was physically assaulted by a fellow congressman. Or why sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, in the midst of a severe depression and difficult family situation, returned to the City of Lights to finish his William Tecumseh Sherman.

The Greater Journey is not a history of France as seen through American eyes. Neither is it a transnational or comparative study. As a result McCullough includes only enough context to provide sufficient background to the characters’ stories and reflections. This makes the narrative seem myopic at times. For example, while he describes in good detail the events of the revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune, McCullough does not delve in depth into what the main participants stood for. He gives a great account of Louis Philippe's or Napoleon III’s personalities, but says very little about them as politicians and decision makers.

McCullough also abstains from making broad analytical statements. For example, he remarks that both Charles Sumner, while attending medical school in the 1830s and Henry O. Tanner, while studying painting at a studio in the 1890s observed that Blacks were accepted by their peers and teachers. Elsewhere in the book he reports the shocked reaction of some Americans upon seeing naked statues in Paris, and their surprise that in France male doctors examined female patients –- which he notes led to a greater knowledge of female medical matters. These were striking differences between France and the United States, yet McCullough does not attempt to further explore the issues or to explain the reason for these differences. To be fair, this is consistent with his choice to focus on the characters and their immediate context, but it can leave the reader wanting more.

In the end, The Greater Journey is an ode to a kind of adventure and discovery that is perhaps more relevant today than ever. By going to Paris, these Americans discovered the excitement of living abroad, of feeling life more acutely. They learned and were shaped as both human beings and professionals by their experiences, which made for richer individuals, and in turn, for a richer nation, and the possibility of a richer world.

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