What Paris Teaches Americans

Obelisk and  la Fontaine des Mers installed in 1836 and 1846
Place de la Concord: Obelisk and la Fontaine des Mers installed in 1836 and 1846

Destination: Paris

Book: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (NEW May 2011) by David McCullough

1900 Cafe, Left Bank
1900 Cafe, Left Bank

The master biographer, David McCullough , in the travel biography [amazon_link id=”1416571760″ target=”_blank” ] The Greater Journey[/amazon_link] , focuses on a variety of people who spent time in Paris during the period between 1830 and 1900.  A crowd of medical students, art students, scientists, politicians–some dilettantes and some accomplished and dedicated to self-improvement–come from the raw new country of the United States to soak up some style in the cultural capitol of Europe.

It seems appropriate to review this book the day after the tenth anniversary of September 11, a day that sharpens a feeling of patriotism in America. Despite the fact that it takes place in Paris, the reader also learns about the maturing of the young country. Time after time these travelers to Paris–whether short-term tourists or long-term ex pats–tell friends how their time in Paris has made them feel more American.  McCullough skillfully shows the growing confidence of the United States citizens in their own country.

In the early sections, McCullough pulls off a complex act, juggling a great many life stories and at the same time filling in the history, culture, and look of Paris itself. People we meet include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the better known Supreme Court Justice. The elder Holmes studied medicine in Paris when U.S. medical schools lagged far behind.

And did you know that Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, intended to become an artist? That’s why he went to Paris.

Posters for sale in book stall
Posters for sale in book stall

We follow Richard Rush, American Minister to France, through the overthrow of the last King of France and then the horrible uprising of 1848, brought on by desperate economic conditions. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female physician, makes interesting observations on the arts, comparing Rembrandt to Hawthorne. ” The House of Seven Gables is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words instead of oils.”


Writers flocked to Paris, too.  McCullough gives us an in-depth portrait of James Fenimore Cooper. Regardless of whether you like Cooper’s  overwrought adventures of the American frontier, (eg. Last of the Mohicans) you must admit that he truly was an American writers, despite the fact that many of his books were actually written while he was resident in Paris.  McCullough says in the Source Notes “Cooper was a far more interesting man and the popularity of his work abroad far greater than generally appreciated in our time.”

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…The only one of the New England “immortals” who did not come was Henry Thoreau , but then he seldom went anywhere.

McCullough also praises the ordinary people who kept diaries–a form of writing that generally escapes fame– and we can thank this book for bringing them to our attention.

“….so many of the protagonists were superb writers… Such descriptions to be found in the letters and journals of even those who did not regard themselves as professional writers–like Emma Willard, Charles Sumner, or Thomas Appleton–amply qualify as American literature of the sea.  Anyone wishing a sample of the professional virtuosity of a writer like Nathaniel Willis need only read his hilarious account of dining on board the brig Pacific in rough weather.” From the introduction to Source Notes, Section 1. The Way Over.

In the Source Notes, McCullough recommends the first of John Sanderson’s  two-volume The Americans in Paris, as  “one of the best books about Paris by an American ever written.”

In the later sections of the book, McCullough focuses on one or two people at a time, going into great depth about men and women we may or may not remember, but who deserve our attention. The story of Elihu Washburne, friend of Ulysses S. Grant and ambassador to France during the great upheaval of a German siege from outside and a vicious internal revolt, surely deserves to be known as one of the truly great men of American history. We get mini-biographies of artists John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Pont Neuf, Paris
Pont Neuf, Paris

Why does this book deserve a place in the traveler’s library? For one thing, a traveler planning a trip to Paris could use The Greater Journey as a guide. Here an uprising took place, here a famous artist or author had an apartment, here a  famous American took medical classes, or attended an artists’ atelier.

Traveler’s activities today echo those described in The Greater Journey. Naturally, all artists flock to the Louvre, many sitting all day and copying paintings.

Copying a Masterpiece at the Louvre
Copying a Masterpiece at the Louvre (21st century)

Many of the figures in the book live on the left bank–several in St. Germaine. The Jardins Luxembourg and the Tuilleries are important to the lives of the 19th century visitor as they are today. The landmark bridges and even the venerable Procope restaurant had been visited as far back as the 18th century when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams came to Paris. They are all still there.

Rear view of Procope with portraits of famous guests
Rear view of Procope with portraits of famous guests

McCullough always has an eye for the telling detail. For instance when the city residents are scrambling for food–dining on rat and horse, American Minister to France Elihu Washburne holds a Christmas dinner in which he serves canned goods, and

“…in addition chocolates, of which there was still no shortage in Paris.  Indeed, supplies of French chocolate, mustard, and wine appeared to be inexhaustible.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or as Henry James called it, “the still-present past of Paris.”

[A copy of the book, The Greater Journey, was supplied by the publisher, Simon & Schuster for the purposes of review. All photos are the property of Ken Badertscher and Vera Marie Badertscher. Please inquire if you want to reuse. The book title is linked to Amazon for your convenience. If you click through to Amazon and purchase anything at all, I get a few cents which helps support A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.]

For many of the figures in the book, their time in Paris was transformative. You can see more modern stories of the influence of Paris in the book, Paris Was Ours. Have you visited another country and felt the visit changed you in important ways?



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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

3 thoughts on “What Paris Teaches Americans

  1. After I returned from my first trip to England and Scotland I started following UK news and politics. It seemed that after I’d met some locals and fallen in love with their countries, I cared more about what happened there. That’s only one way that travel has changed my life!

    For more reading on Americans in Paris, you might enjoy Ross King’s “The Judgment of Paris” about the rise of Impressionism. His usual novel-like writing sytle makes the past come alive …

    1. Colleen, your recommendations are always sterling. I’ll put “The Judgment of Paris” on my list. And I SO agree that once you’ve been in a country you become much more aware of happenings in that country. I’m generally frustrated that I cannot find more in American newspapers about the places I’ve visited beyond our borders.

  2. okay- you had me with the words “travel biography”- this book has just married my two loves….amazing!! This sounds like an absolutely fascinating book and definitely worth reading.

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