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Review: City of Light is Americans' mentor in engaging historical narrative 'The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris' by David McCullough

David McCullough and Woody Allen seem to be on the same wavelength when it comes to subject matter.

Allen's latest film, the charming Midnight in Paris, is all about an American writer's nostalgia for a Paris he never knew, in the 1920s heyday of American expats like Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

The movie takes him — and the audience — to that particular golden age. But Hemingway et al were far from the first Americans to find a haven in the city. McCullough's new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, takes its readers to the City of Light in the 19th century, with just as illustrious a cast, from James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse to Mary Cassatt and Henry James — and many, many more.

McCullough is that rare phenomenon, a bestselling historian. His books have won him critical acclaim, two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards — and sold millions of copies to a wide range of readers. The Greater Journey makes clear why: He combines extensive, meticulous research and a scholar's skill at synthesis with an always engaging, clear prose style and deft narrative.

The Greater Journey could serve as a short course on French history in the 19th century; McCullough covers bloody revolutions and dreadful sieges, magnificent international expositions and the Second Empire's massive urban renewal project, which swept away miles of medieval slums and historical architecture to create the elegant boulevards of modern Paris.

But he keeps the focus always on the Americans who witness those events in the city's history — who they were, why they came to Paris and what they found there. "Not all pioneers went west," he writes.

McCullough begins the book in the 1830s, when getting to Europe from the United States was just about as difficult as a pioneer's trek. There were no luxury liners, just cargo sailing ships that took on a few passengers for an Atlantic voyage that lasted for one or two months and promised no privacy, bad food and often terrifying weather.

Yet Americans came to Paris by the thousands, for countless reasons. In the early 19th century, with a population of 800,000 it was four times the size of New York City and unparalleled for its galleries and museums, theater and opera and dance, architecture and cuisine and fashion. It was also an international center for medical research and training, and its venerable universities provided some of the finest education in the world.

McCullough takes us there along with dozens of Americans, most of whom came to the city as young unknowns but became, in part because of their experiences there, significant figures in our history. Among his first round of "talented, aspiring Americans," arriving in the 1830s, are James Fenimore Cooper, already famous for his novels of the frontier; Samuel Morse, a noted painter before he became the inventor of the telegraph; Oliver Wendell Holmes, a physician and author; Emma Hart Willard, a leader in women's education; and Charles Sumner, a lawyer and future U.S. senator.

McCullough writes about them in wonderfully intimate fashion, giving the reader, in effect, a seat in Cooper's cozy parlor on the rue Saint-Dominique, a view of Morse climbing a tall ladder to copy paintings in the Louvre and Sumner climbing the 400 steps to the top of Notre-Dame, a peek at Willard reveling in Parisian couture but frowning over the nude statues in the Tuileries, a place at Holmes' side as he soaks up the lectures of distinguished physicians at Hotel Dieu and other teaching hospitals — institutions that barely existed in the United States then, when most doctors' training was a few months of apprenticeship.

Always, the book captures the Americans' enchantment with Paris — one after another of them comes for a few months and stays for years. But most do go home, taking with them not just enhanced skills with paintbrush, pen or scalpel but new ideas. Sumner, for example, was profoundly affected by the respectful treatment he saw black people receive from the French — a lesson that helped make him an ardent abolitionist. (It was a position that, sadly, led to him being ambushed and beaten nearly to death by a Southern congressman in the runup to the Civil War. To recover, he went back to Paris.)

As the century advanced, other Americans arrived, from P.T. Barnum, on tour with "Tom Thumb," and George Catlin, traveling not only with his paintings of American Indians but with members of the Iowa tribe who danced and chanted for King Louis-Philippe at the Tuileries Palace, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, seeking respite from the fame the book brought her and finding the Parisians "graceful, kind, and obliging; not a word nor an act of impoliteness or indecency."

McCullough sketches all his characters warmly, but he gives special attention to the American artists. The last portion of the book is largely devoted to such brilliant major figures as enigmatic John Singer Sargent, strong-minded Mary Cassatt and gregarious Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

He also does a splendid job of describing the city in all its aspects: the stylish social whirl of the Palais Royal; the terrible flames of the Paris Commune uprising; the image of the Statue of Liberty, under construction in a Paris workshop, growing bit by bit to loom over the rooftops.

The Greater Journey is one of those books that I hope will become a richly enhanced e-book. Although the printed book includes a number of illustrations, I found myself putting it down often to search online for the image of a painting or building McCullough mentioned.

But more often I found myself linked happily to my own memories of Paris. I'm with writer and artist (and longtime sojourner in the city) Thomas Appleton, who, McCullough writes, liked to say, "Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

By David McCullough

Simon &

Schuster, 558 pages, $37.50

Review: City of Light is Americans' mentor in engaging historical narrative 'The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris' by David McCullough 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 5:30am]

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