The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris
(Simon & Schuster, 558 pages, 2011)
They were going to France, which meant they were going to Paris. They would be traveling on sailboats and were often delayed for days due to lack of wind. They were going to Paris, but not, as we might surmise, to Picasso’s Paris, or to the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, or to the Paris of Bertolucci’s Last Tango;yet to be born were Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These special Americans, enumerated and discussed in David McCullough’s new narrative history, The Greater Journey, were traveling to Paris in the 19th century; to the Paris that had yet no Tour Eiffel; to a post-Bonaparte Paris that saw the reign of King Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III. This was a Paris whose streets belonged to the characters of Les Misérables, to the July Revolution of 1830 and the cholera epidemic of 1832. This was the Paris inhabited by James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Dr. Wendell Holmes, Emma Willard and, later, the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James. The Paris they endeavored to visit across the Atlantic played host to numerous American painters, medical students, writers, official diplomats, and musicians—those who would exemplify an American tradition of intellectual pilgrimage to Paris, which has continued full-stride through the 20th century. These intellectuals on returning to the United States became agents of action and transformation in American society. They became the leading generals of our wars, and the prodigious innovators of our peace. Crossing the Atlantic, though itself a major feat, was the lesser challenge they encountered. The greater journey, one of the mind and the spirit, laid waiting for them in La Ville-Lumière.
McCullough, a personable and unobtrusive observer, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his books on Harry Truman and John Adams, belongs to a vanguard of American historical writers, whose nearest analogs are Joseph Ellis and Bill Bryson. In The Greater Journey, as in his other work, McCullough wields an even-keeled, old-timey prose style that is well equipped for long, immersive narratives and which has yet spark enough to bring the quick of life rushing back to men and situations buried long in the past.
Of the outstanding New Englanders whose brilliance distinguished American letters in the 1850s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and now Harriet Beecher Stowe had all made pilgrimages to Paris. In 1858 followed yet another, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Herman Melville had passed through in 1849, but his stay had been so brief and uneventful it seems to have mattered little to him. The only one of the New England “immortals” who did not come was Henry Thoreau, but then he seldom went anywhere.
The reader is steeped for some time in the improbable figure of Samuel Morse, one of the most prodigious painting talents of his time and a dear friend and confidante of James Fenimore Cooper. Though impoverished during much of his life, and faced with the tragedy of losing his wife to disease, Morse had the gumption to invent his own telegraph machine and a language to go with it, the Morse code. Morse, after quitting painting as an undisputed, if under-compensated, master, developed a mid-life friendship with a fellow painter-turned-inventor, Louis Daguerre, father of the daguerreotype image and one of the central founders of photography. Morse’s brothers in New York would publish accounts of his time with Daguerre in their newly minted newspaper, the New York Observer. So many of America’s innovators and game-changers were tied together socially and the one undisputed cultural and intellectual hub where they met and burgeoned was Paris. Ample evidence for the magnitude of their relationship to the city resides in the names alone: Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, John Singer Sargent—the list of the great ones goes on and on. One can see why McCullough is so drawn to this precious moment in cultural, technological, and political history, and his book seems to posit that America’s longing for French culture seems proxy for its desire to innovate. The spirit of American renewal requires soul-searching, McCullough seeks to demonstrate, and Paris was a perfect context for this pursuit. To accentuate the ambience, McCullough’s book teems with a cast of French characters, which rivals in eminence that of the American sojourners. From the eccentric and likeable King Louis-Philippe to public figures like de Tocqueville and de Lamartine, The Greater Journey is a record of their friendships, travails, conversations and letters with the Americans in the middle years of the 19th century.
American novelist E. L. Doctorow once commented, “The three most important documents a free society gives are a birth certificate, a passport, and a library card.” It is an expression that McCullough is fond of quoting and it captures the privilege and responsibility inherent in republican democracy. It is with this spirit that McCullough conceives, plans and writes his books, taking a close look at the strident elements in our national character, how they were born, how they’ve developed and evolved and where they seem to be going. “When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” Thomas Appleton once remarked. This statement, while a welcome expression of levity and good humor, underlines a crucial aspect of the shared imagination of the French and the Americans, an obsession with political justice and the rights of man. In the end it is the unquenchable humanism of both cultures that bears fruit. The American wish to test itself against the simultaneous foreignness and likeness of French culture, along with the belief in the capabilities of man and the capacities of his mind, has made France and America stalwart allies on the geopolitical stage and among civilization’s greatest pair of dancing partners. At the helm of this newly minted account, expressing nothing less than the core of American intellectual imagination, David McCullough has once again performed a great service to his subject and his country.