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The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

How 19th-century America’s romance with Paris helped to change the course of US history.

By Michael Taube / May 25, 2011

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris By David McCullough Simon & Schuster 558 pp.

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In the film version of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1951), there’s a famous exchange between the two lead characters, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) and Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly). The beautiful Frenchwoman says, “Maybe Paris has a way of making people forget,” to which the American traveler quickly retorts, “Paris? No. Not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful to ever let you forget anything.”

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That’s a pretty good assessment, considering the historical love affair many Americans have had with La Ville-Lumière (The City of Light). In particular, those who worked, traveled, and simply escaped to Paris in the 19th century were enchanted by its history, culture, and creativity. The longer they stayed, the more they became entranced with a city full of exciting ideas, new horizons, and intriguing possibilities.

David McCullough’s new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, is the first in-depth examination of this phenomenon. The eminent historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001), has woven a scintillating account of young Americans, driven by wanderlust, setting out in search of greener Parisian pastures. Well-known figures such as James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Mary Cassat, and long-forgotten entities like Elizabeth Blackwell and William Wells Brown, all walked along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, went to the Musée du Louvre, ate wonderful meals, and became inspired. Their life-changing adventures played a vital role in transforming the course of US history.

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The first wave of Americans arriving in Paris in the 1830s was a carbon copy of the immigrant experience felt in their own home country. Unlike important historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who had come for political or diplomatic reasons, these weary sea travelers had no important titles or personal wealth and, in most cases, lacked jobs. They came from most of the then 24 US states, with diverse backgrounds, passions, and interests. But as McCullough points out, they were united in ambition, and wished “to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream.”

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