The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

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

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

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.”

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.”

Why Paris? While it may seem an odd question on the surface – most people would trade in their finest baubles for a first-class ticket to that city – there were other exciting and inspiring European cities. This particular group of Americans actually had very little personal knowledge of Paris. In most cases, the “newspapers they read, in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, carried occasional items on the latest Paris fashions or abbreviated reports on politics or crime in France, along with periodic notices of newly arrived shipments of French wine or wallpaper or fine embroidery or gentlemen’s gloves, but that was about the limit of their cognizance of things French.” Yet the picture McCullough paints emphasizes that, for these individuals, there really was no other choice than Paris. They were aware “a greater journey had begun ... and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and to their country than they yet knew.”

“The Greater Journey” focuses on the personal histories of this first wave of American travelers, including what they saw, experienced, and dreamed about. McCullough’s superb writing style – an exquisite combination of crisp academic inclination with a light, whimsical storytelling component – brings these unique characters to life in a robust, exciting manner.

For example, the budding physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. regarded Paris as “paradise,” and unlike many people mentioned in this book, “none adapted to Paris so readily and enthusiastically” as he did. Two up-and-coming painters, Mary Cassat and John Sargent, “received warm acclaim” for their work at the Impressionist Exhibition. The important friendship between novelist James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse, a portrait artist who later invented the telegraph, is described in greater detail. And William Wells Brown, a lecturer, writer, and “fugitive slave” invited to speak at Victor Hugo’s international peace conference, was “tremendously pleased by the response of his audience, and even more by the welcome he received later at a lavish reception given by the French foreign minister, Alexis de Tocqueville.”

McCullough has added another impressive chapter to his legacy of writing books of vital historical importance with mass appeal. While the United States and France have experienced periods of political and financial turmoil, their societies and cultures have real, established links. If anyone still questions this fact, “The Greater Journey” helps put an end to the debate – for good.

Michael Taube is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, and a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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