I recently finished reading The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. This book came out in 2011, and from the time I first saw it, I wanted to have and read the book. But understanding this: The Greater Journey focuses on France in the 1800s, the experiences of medical students, the lives of artists (mainly painters and sculptors), political figures I don’t care for, such as Charles Sumner, and French political upheavals in the 1800s. These are all very low on the scale of my interests. Actually, several of the topics of the book are not at all of interest or “use” to me.
There was only one key figure in the book whose experiences were of compelling interest, and that was the popular American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. He worked on some of his Leatherstocking Tales while residing in Paris, far from the settings of Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook.
The book is over 450 pages long. It would have been easy enough to have looked Cooper up in the index and read the selections about him. So, why did I take on this reading task?
There is another key figure in this book. It is the author David McCullough. He may very well be the best living narrative historian in our country. I think he is now in his 80s. The vast research and wonderful narrative of this book is an accomplishment at any age.
While reading along, I often told myself that only David McCullough could write an account of such a topic as Americans in Paris and write for over 400 pages and keep me engaged. That is the mark of a good historian, a good story teller.
Dr. Tom Wagy always emphasizes in regard to history that nothing is simple. That truth then leads to another bit about history: There is always more to the story than you might think. Add to that this point: You don’t like what you don’t know.
Young aspiring artists stood for hours in the Louvre. They were not just looking; they were copying. I learned quite a bit about American artists in this book. One of them, Samuel F. B. Morse, the son of a Calvinist preacher, has become best known for the Morse Code and the telegraph. But his prior background was that of a artist.
For aspiring medical students, Paris was the place to go. The best hospitals, best surgeons, and best lecturers on medicine were there. And there were cadavers, some of which were fished out of the Seine River. The medical world was changing because of the literal hands-on approach of medical students.
David McCullough shows how the American life and culture was changed because of the pilgrimages of all kinds of people to Paris. I actually wish that he had written a bit more. I would love to have read yet another account of the writers of the 20th century who flocked to Paris. The best source for that story is Ernest Hemingway’s first hand account, titled In Our Time.
McCullough’s prior books include his biography John Adams and 1776. I would regard those two books as essential reading for understanding early American history. His biography of Harry S Truman, titled Truman, won him a Pulitzer Prize. I did not buy it when it came out, for I was none too favorable toward the subject. Now, I regard Truman as my favorite President with whom I disagree on policy. I have found McCullough’s book helpful.
The nice thing is that I have two other and older McCullough works that I have not read. One is Mornings on Horseback, which is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt during his younger years. I know the story, and since McCullough is crafty with any material, I know the promise of that book. I also have a book he wrote on the Panama Canal that is called The Path Between the Seas.
It is a lengthy book, and I am not sure I want to read that much on digging a big ditch in Panama. But wait, David McCullough wrote it. I reckon I am interested.