David McCullough's 'The Greater Journey': How France nurtured the American experiment
David McCullough's "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" chronicles the outsize influence France, particularly Paris, had on American writers, artists, politicians and scientists in the 19th century.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris'
by David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $37.50
There are few countries with as much in common as the United States and France. The French provided not only critical support to the American colonies fighting for their freedom but also much of the philosophical foundation for the young Republic. Long after the revolutionary dust settled, France continued to nurture the American experiment.
From 1830 to 1900, a tide of influential Americans — artists, writers, painters and doctors — braved the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to visit Paris. What they saw profoundly changed not only the travelers, but also America itself.
Charles Sumner studied at the Sorbonne, astonished to see black students treated as equals and, as a result, became an unflinching voice against slavery as the U.S. senator for Massachusetts, beaten nearly to death by a South Carolina senator on the floor of the Senate for his views.
James Fenimore Cooper ("The Last of the Mohicans") wrote some of his most significant works in Paris, working with his close friend Samuel F.B. Morse. Morse, inspired by the French communication system of semaphores, invented the modern electrical telegraph and his famous code and radically changed communications globally.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Henry James all lived and worked in Paris. Charles Bulfinch, the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol, was inspired by touring Parisian monuments in 1787 with Thomas Jefferson, then the American minister to France.
In "The Greater Journey," David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, captures this flood of doctors, writers, artists and free spirits who coursed through Paris. Moving chronologically, he tells the story through the eyes of these young travelers, astonished by the beauty of the city before them.
McCullough's skill as a storyteller is on full display here as he relates the treacherous Atlantic crossing, the horse-drawn carriages and less-than-ideal plumbing that greeted the travelers, many of whom had little exposure to anything outside the rural U.S. For aspiring artists who had never even seen a copy of the masterpieces of the Old World, the experience of an afternoon at the Louvre was enough to bring them nearly to their knees.
The idea of telling the story of the French cultural contribution to America through the eyes of a generation of aspiring artists, writers and doctors is inspired, and McCullough draws on untapped historical sources to tell the story, against the roiling backdrop of a French military coup and a new Emperor (Louis Napoleon), a disastrous war with Germany that included a siege of Paris (setting the stage for WWI) and the horrific Paris Commune that followed.
But the effort in several ways falls disappointingly short of its early promise. The historical narrative is disjointed. McCullough mentions Andrew Jackson's defeat by John Adams, only to jarringly describe a toast to President's Jackson's election only pages later, without explanation. (Adams narrowly won in 1824 in an election decided by the House of Representatives but lost his re-election bid four years later to Jackson — but you wouldn't know it from this book.) French history, similarly, unfolds with only cursory explanation of the events.
Second, McCullough's focus on such a wide cast of characters renders the portrait of each one superficial, scattered by a wide historical lens and large cast. Exciting accomplishments, tragic losses and almost everything in between is lost.
At the same time, however, McCullough focuses inordinate attention on detailed descriptions of sculpture or paintings, distracting from the larger point McCullough is making: the powerful influence on American painting, sculpture, writing and medicine wielded by a small but hugely influential group who braved the dangers of transatlantic travel and brought home radical and transformative new ideas.
Perhaps an 80-year history of France, told through the eyes of dozens of American visitors, can only be told with such a blurred historical detail. It's a shame, though — with the absurd memory of "freedom fries" and hostility to one of our closest allies still ringing in our ears, it's worth remembering the French contribution to American art, politics, science and medicine. But even with its faults, McCullough deserves credit for finding a compelling and largely untold story in American history.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.
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