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The Greater Journey

David McCullough on the early American pilgrimage to Paris

Created date

July 26th, 2011

They traveled there not merely for rest, amusement, or the refined pleasures of the upper class. They braved the 3,000-mile journey for more than fine dining and a night at the opera. These 19th century Americans many of them influential figures left their young country for the Old World s Paris, France, to work and to learn, in pursuit of experiences that could be had nowhere else. With the same grace found in his seven previous books, David McCullough tells their story in The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster, 2011). The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner follows over a dozen characters, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Fenimore Cooper, and Samuel Morse as they venture to the French city on a cultural pilgrimage that would become a rite of passage in years to come. Just before leaving in 1829, Samuel Morse, already an established portrait artist, insisted that he needed to see Paris, declaring that his education as a painter [was] incomplete without it. Similarly, Holmes set out to complete his medical studies there, for it was among the leading centers of medicine at the time. Like Morse, he deemed the trip essential if he was to be anything more than a rural dispenser of pills and powders. As McCullough aptly illustrates, Paris was a wealth of knowledge worth more than the journey s price, and well worth the risk of the four-week sea voyage required to get there. In an age before radios and GPS satellites, ships set sail for the French coast at the mercy of the perilous North Atlantic, often never heard from again.

Inexpressible magic

On the whole, McCullough offers readers a very personal presentation of life in Paris, skillfully drawing on an assortment of letters and diaries that convey their authors most intimate impressions. Feminist educator Emma Willard, on her arrival in France, wrote of the inexpressible magic and sublimity that she felt at the sight of the massive cathedrals 150 years in the making. The art, food, entertainment, and educational opportunities were unlike any they had ever encountered. The Louvre stood packed with masterpieces they had only seen in books. The medical schools opened their doors to women like Elizabeth Blackwell, who, thanks to this education, would become America s first female doctor. Throughout the 70 years covered in this book, Americans were in Paris to witness deadly epidemics, political upheavals, and full-scale wars. Some came as diplomats, others private citizens all of them a new breed of pioneer. While the story sometimes lags, it s but a minor flaw in an otherwise ambitious project.The Greater Journeyis a long-overdue chapter in American and French history.