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Book Review: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

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Author-historian David McCullough (1776, John Adams, Truman, and more) has now applied his talents in research and description to the years 1830 – 1900, but not as they were lived in America. In his latest study, McCullough gives us a profound feel for how a number of enthusiastic Americans experienced Paris, France, and brought or sent back to the United States the benefits that their broadened horizon generated.


Some of those benefits are easily named, such as the idea for an electromagnetic telegraph and the Morse code. But most of the benefits over the time period covered have to be acknowledged as incalculable, such as the influence of the new Impressionist art movement on Mary Cassatt’s developing style and subsequent contributions to the art world. McCullough’s sweeping work reminds us that France, through its Parisian institutions and teachers especially, was supportive of and valuable to our country’s steep learning curve and creativity in nineteenth-century arts, medicine, and technology.

There are many fascinating accountings in this book including, for example, the often hair-raising sea voyages to get to France; the conditions under which surgeries were accomplished — sans anesthetics or disinfecting and sterilizing procedures, still unknown anywhere; the seven trunks of clothes one woman needed in order to spend a week at Emperor Louis Napoleon’s country home; and the epiphany Charles Sumner had in Paris that eventually led to his being brutally attacked back on the floor of the Senate Chamber.


What may be (and could be, but who’s counting) a thousand people mentioned, the following are among the recognizable names given greatest attention: Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, George Healy, John Singer Sargent, Elihu Washburne, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Additional people are covered in a bit less depth, and oh-so-many others are given only a sentence or two or three.

Through hundreds of comments in addition to the author’s, we learn much about the personal lifestyles of myriad individuals — teachers, doctors, inventors, politicians, writers, and artists of all kinds, from painters and sculptors to musicians, singers, and dancers. We also learn about French leaders, the Second Empire, the Second and Third Republics, and the Franco-Prussian War and siege of Paris. All these occurred during the time period covered, and all affected or were reported by Americans in Paris. The American Civil War also occurred during this period, of course — and we learn that the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy.

Humor is often provided by quotations from journal entries and letters. For example, McCullough writes: “The fashion for mustaches and beards among the French dandies, the Parisian ‘exquisites,’ had little or no appeal … ‘Don’t you hate to see so many ninnies in mustaches?’ wrote John Sanderson [a teacher from Philadelphia]. Beards annoyed him still more. ‘One loves the women just because they have no beards on their faces.’ If a man was born a fool, Sanderson concluded, he could be a greater fool in Paris than anywhere on earth, such were the opportunities.”

The fourteen chapters, organized chronologically, are loosely titled based on one idea or person but cover a number of travelers with a variety of talents and interests. There is so much more within each chapter than the titling implies, in fact, that the reader can lose the thread easily. It seems to this reviewer that many subsections of chapters were included mainly because information had been gleaned about some event or person that might not otherwise see the light of day in any other book, and so the author felt obligated to include it in this one. But perhaps the absence of a continuously clear focus is not a major flaw. There is plenty here to entertain and inform. It is contingent upon readers to let go, to flow, in order to take a greater journey themselves.

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About Meredith Ann Rutter

  • I had the same question! McCullough explains this oddity on pages 244-245 in The Greater Journey. Basically it was a sympathy for the “rebels,” though not really as simple as that.

  • Why would the French be partial to the Confederacy ? That stance would seem to contradict the whole reason for the French Revolution in the first place.