David McCullough’s exhilarating and epic book explores the intellectual legacy that France gave to its 19th-century American visitors.
The Greater Journey. Americans in Paris. By David McCullough. 558 pages. Simon & Schuster. $37.50.
David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Astérix it is Mr. McCullough. He seems to have had something else in mind, however. With ”The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.
The tradition began very much as a case of ”Lafayette, nous voici.” The first pilgrims were nearly all single, wealthy men in their 20s, serious of purpose and ambitious by nature. A number of them had played a role in the French general’s triumphant return to America. They were provincial and inexperienced. They had never before sailed. They knew little French literature. They did not yet suspect that one could be seduced by breakfast. Following a tradition established years earlier by John Adams, they came to Paris to do their homework. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner and Samuel F.B. Morse looked to the city as library and laboratory rather than as liberation. The idea was to settle in Paris to ”study hard,” a concept that would put most junior-year-abroad programs out of business.
In two panoramic chapters, Mr. McCullough introduces us to the travelers as they prepare for their adventure. ”Emotions ran high on the eve of departure,” he writes. ”Melancholy and second thoughts interspersed with intense excitement were the common thing.” The trip was arduous, the French drizzle constant, and bureaucracy evidently dates to Vercingetorix. But it was a fine time to make the game-changing discovery that the Old World really was old. There were probably fewer than a thousand Americans in the city through the 1830s. All were struck by the civility of their hosts. Wine was cheaper than milk. Though the Louvre opened to the public only on Sundays, foreigners could visit throughout the week.
One American who could reliably be found there was Samuel Morse. At his side for several hours each day was his dear friend James Fenimore Cooper, whose ”Last of the Mohicans” graced every Parisian bookstore window. (As Cooper noted, the French understood that novel to be the only book published in America since the time of Ben Franklin.) Mr. McCullough devotes a chapter to Morse and Cooper – the two had met at the White House in the course of Lafayette’s visit – who attest to the transformative, transfiguring power of Paris. Morse arrived as a painter and left as an inventor. He took home with him in 1832 the germ of what would become the telegraph. With a second visit, he imported Daguerre’s ideas on photography.
For most of Mr. McCullough’s travelers, Paris represented a great awakening – the blood-tingling beauty of it all! – but also an education, an invitation to see the world anew. Any doctor worth his salt hoped to study there. Charles Sumner was struck by the science but also by the black medical students. He would go on to crusade for abolition. America’s first female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, returned to New York to found a hospital run entirely by women.
By definition Mr. McCullough’s grand tour is impressionistic and discursive, proceeding by way of crossed paths and capsule biographies. This is history to be savored rather than sprinted through, like a Parisian meal. It amounts to a meaty collection of short stories, expertly and flavorfully assembled, free of gristly theory. Mr. McCullough has his favorites, and displays a marked preference for the visual artists. Generally he describes Paris with a painter’s eye: ”It was not just that they had never known a city of such size or variety, or with so much history, but they had never known one where the look and mood could be so strikingly different in different light.” Only an ingrate would question his casting decisions.
Occasionally Mr. McCullough pauses to pit one national treasure against another. So Harriet Beecher Stowe spends a spellbound hour before ”The Raft of the Medusa”: ”She was sure,” he writes, ”no more powerful piece had ever been painted. It was as though this one picture had been worth the whole trip to France.” The New York sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens plays a leading role in ”The Greater Journey.” He began as a cameo-cutter, an apprenticeship to which Mr. McCullough devotes several pages. And like every dual national, his narrative maintains a foot in two places. Mr. McCullough’s is as much the splendid story of a nation growing up as it is that of a city coming into its own. In the course of these pages, Paris acquires bateaux-mouches, the grands magasins, the Folies Bergère and Haussman’s avenues.
The two histories combine most powerfully in his account of the Franco-Prussian War and Elihu Washburne, America’s minister to France between 1869 and 1877. A reliable topic of conversation in Paris, food was the principal one during the German siege, when cat meat revealed itself be a delicacy and Paris solved its rat problem. By the time German troops marched down the Champs-Élysées, on March 1, l871, more than 65,000 Parisians had died. The only prominent diplomat to do so, Washburne valiantly refused to budge even through the months of the Commune, one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. His was no paradisiacal Paris; as the atrocities mounted, the distraught Washburne noted that the city was ”a hell upon this earth.” At one point the Seine ran red with blood. A team of 60,000 masons would be required to put Paris back together again.
The making of art is inherently less dramatic than the making of history, and the Paris Commune exerts a power that John Singer Sergeant’s painting of Madame Gautreau or Saint-Gaudens’s casting of Admiral Farragut may not. Saint-Gaudens brilliantly proves Mr. McCullough’s point, however; here was American history literally forged in France. The colossal bronze statue of the Civil War hero was shipped back to New York to be unveiled in May 1881. During a later Parisian stay, Saint-Gaudens cast the Sherman on horseback that stands today on the edge of Central Park.
Among the reasons to visit Paris, Saint-Gaudens’s son recognized one that would migrate with the times: Only in France could an artist ”measure himself with his contemporaries, place his work before the world’s most critical audience, and learn, once for all, wherein it was good and wherein bad.” Mr. McCullough takes us from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Isadora Duncan, which is to say that ”The Greater Journey” ends before Theodore Dreiser spilled the beans. Its history and art were all very well and good, but Paris was about something else altogether. That something else was sex. No one in ”The Greater Journey” seems to have noticed Twain’s ”delightfully immoral” working girls. Instead, John Singer Sargent’s father waxed on about probity and the domestic virtues of Parisian life. Saint-Gaudens would draw a blank when asked later to recall any ”amorous adventure” abroad, although, as is clear from these pages, the sculptor had a selective memory. Very possibly much of what happened in 19th-century Paris stayed in Paris.
What Mr. McCullough’s Americans took home with them were less sentimental educations than artistic and intellectual ones; the finishing school and the movable feast came later. These years were about shaping art and principles, tasks with which France assisted by dispatching the Statue of Liberty and Tocqueville in the opposite direction. It bestowed a greater gift as well. ”Coming here has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am,” Saint-Gaudens wrote. Pining for all that had once seemed unremarkable, he returned home ”a burning hot-headed patriot.” That lesson too endures.