The Greater Journey

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris 
by David McCullough
2011/ 576 pages / 
rating 8

I was actually disappointed in what I thought was an oh-so-promising book.  I guess I bought the hype but I’ve read much better books by this author, too.

It’s an overview of Paris in the mid 19th Century and the Americans who visited.  It feels quite draggy at times and a sort of mish-mash at others.  I suspect this has to do with the generally chronological organization but I think it also has to do with the availability of resource material.

Paris of the 19th century was just recovering from the myriad consequences of the Revolution of 1789 and the First French Empire.  Napoleon took over and left his stamp and then along came the Bourbon Restoration with Louis XVIII and Charles XVIII who were overthrown in favor of  the Orleans family with Louis-Philipe and a constitutional and liberal monarchy followed by another revolution and the 2nd Republic (the first was during 1790s). Think they’re done?  Nope – Napoleon III (Louis) grabbed control and proclaimed himself emperor so we could have the 2nd Empire. He botched it with the Franco-Prussian war after which a Third Republic was declared in 1870 (which lasted until 1940).

This is not the point of  the book –  some Americans left,  some stayed.   The point is that much of what we consider American came from France – Americans went there,  seeking training in the arts or medicine, brought their knowledge home and it changed us – it’s with us today.   We should really know more about the history of France.

During this time a lot of other things happened in France – there were famines and cholera, a  heightened cultural awareness,  the Siege of Paris, the Paris Commune (community) and Marxist thought.  There were five (5) World Expositions.  And the Civil War and a lot of westward expansion changed the US.

It was during this time that Americans started going to Europe – mostly unmarried young men but some women as well. A lot of artists, writers and doctors went for training. Families sometimes went for a few weeks or months. Some stayed a long time, most went home after a nice vacation.  A few weren’t impressed but most were overwhelmed.

What McCullough has done is examined the papers, the diaries, the journals, the letters, whatever he could find from  a good sampling of these travelers and ex-pats.  The focus is on the artists and doctors who brought French methods to American practices.   Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner, George Healey and Samuel F. B. Morse are some prominent names brought to the fore as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe,  Mary Putnam, and Mary Cassatt.  Elihu Washburne,  America’s Minister to France during part of the period, had a  lengthy stay.

So why at the beginning of this review did I say the narrative was,  in part, a draggy mish-mash?  Because there are parts where my interest just lagged – I trudged – this was mostly in the parts dealing with medicine but also when McCullough seemed to get bogged down in the details of  the day-to-day lives of the subjects – the Healey’s especially.

And the mish-mash is felt sometimes when it appears that McCullough switches from one life to another arbitrarily or by coincidence –  I guess I just feel like the book could have stood a good editing – stated his point up front and stuck to it rather than bombarding the reader with all he could glean from the diaries.

But when McCullough’s good he’s very, very good so overall – say 385 pages of a 457 page narrative – the book is good.  I’m glad I read it –  I recommend it.  But a different reader might find that some things hold their interest better than others.

P.S.  The photographs are totally fantastic.

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