14 November, 2011Issue 17.3EuropeHistory

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La Ville-Lumière

Rahul Prabhakar

The Greater JourneyDavid McCullough
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
Simon & Schuster, 2011
576 Pages
ISBN 978-1416571766


I have lived among a great and glorious people. I have thrown my thoughts into a new language. I have received the shock of new minds and new habit. I have drawn closer the ties of social relations with the best formed minds…I hope you do not think your money wasted.

Written in 1834, these lines of the future poet-physician-professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. capture the youthful, energetic spirit of David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, a narrative litany of amuse-bouches crafted to satisfy a popular, never-satiated American craving: Paris! It was “La Ville-Lumière” long before the Yablochkov candle bestowed such esteem—as McCullough reminds us in his charming paean to these transatlantic American pioneers, who are affluent and erudite, but no more or less ambitious than those who trekked West. On the hardcover jacket’s spine, Caillebotte’s determined young man represents these American men and women learning, perfecting, and striving on the banks of the Seine. Yet, McCullough’s fleeting attention to their stories reveals his ambition to be far more modest than theirs.

McCullough writes about whom and what he likes. Otherwise, he will quit, as he did on a biography of Pablo Picasso. “He was an awful man. I don’t think you have to love your subject—initially you shouldn’t—but it’s like picking a roommate.” McCullough’s prize-winning presidential biographies, Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001), derided by some as “Valentines” to their subjects, focus on forgotten great men, their burdens, and their decisions: whether to bomb Hiroshima and end the war; or how to consolidate a fragile federal polity. Mornings on Horseback (1981) shows how Theodore Roosevelt forged his renowned sturdiness despite being a feeble, anxious child. The Great Bridge (1972) is a laborious but profoundly insightful tome on the courage of anonymous laborers in the caissons below the East River that came to hold up the Brooklyn Bridge. These are works with beginnings, middles, and ends, with nothing preordained and emphasis stressed on the contingencies in a person’s life.

What makes McCullough so satisfying to read is his talent for writing narrative, a structure naturally befitting a life—but does it befit a century? Or a city? Or rather, the experience of an expatriate community over the course of 70 years, with few crossed paths between the protagonists? The Greater Journey is really a string of short stories tenuously related by the relentlessly beautiful setting in which they take place. Historical events keep time—the 1848 revolution, the rise of Napoleon III, the Prussian siege—and intrude on the lives of Parisians, who are uncritically portrayed as “pleased with the weather and the crowds, delighted to be seen in their new spring finery and to be part of the glittering show.” The Americans are there to enjoy Paris, too, but more importantly, to grow amidst the inspiration of teachers and colleagues. The Greater Journey is more akin to the short stories of Brave Companions (1992) than any of McCullough’s other books, as the latter recounts stories from Alexander von Humboldt’s ascent to Louis Agassiz’s charge to his Harvard students (“Look at your fish!”) to the impact of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who makes a repeat appearance here.

In weaving together short narratives, McCullough puts to practice his own adage that “writing should be done for the ear.” There are a few choice topics that he feels deserve sustained attention in conversation with the reader, and they shine in The Greater Journey. The rest, it seems, are cocktail party filler. Yet, even the most engrossing stories suspiciously confirm familiar-sounding tales of the inspiring impact of Paris on American students, the courageous American contributions to Parisian survival, and American genius that happened to settle in Paris on its way elsewhere.

For example, McCullough has us imagine clusters of American and French medical students peering at patients, accompanying Parisian physicians during their rounds in renowned hospitals. Most prominent is Pierre Louis, who taught a generation of the talented “Medicals”, such as Holmes, Henry Bowditch, and Mason Warren:

He was known—and at times ridiculed—for his extended questioning of patients, careful examinations and endless note-taking. Seeing Holmes taking notes one morning during the rounds at La Pitié, Louis exclaimed, ‘Vous travaillez, monsieur. C’est bien ça!

Louis’s empirical lesson for his American students is unmistakable, and akin to Agassiz’s: only careful, holistic observation leads to anything useful.

The stories are not only of Americans learning from the French. In “Under Siege”, U.S. ambassador Elihu Washburne comes to the fore in the 1870 Prussian siege of Paris and the heady days of the Commune. Whereas all other major diplomats chose to leave the city, Washburne decided to stay, serve, and grapple with the very human dimensions of war, whether rushing out Americans and Germans or negotiating to release the captured archbishop amidst bombardment and rampage: “However anxious I might be myself to get away, I would deem it a species of cowardice to avail myself of my diplomatic privilege and leave my nationaux behind me to care for themselves.” McCullough’s original analysis of Washburne’s diary is his only historiographical contribution in The Greater Journey, unsurprisingly, given that it highlights the traits of loyalty and sacrifice most admired in his biographies.

Whereas the stories of the medical students, Washburne, and others are unimaginable without their situation in Paris, we glimpse transcendent genius in John Singer Sargent. At 18, Sargent walked into the atelier of Carolus-Duran:

Sargent’s father explained that he had brought his son to the studio that he might become a pupil. The portfolio was laid on the floor, and the drawings were spread out. We all crowded about to look, and…[we] were astonished.

At 26, he painted the “arresting” El Jaleo, a Spanish dancer in the midst of performance, which hangs unavoidably in the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, meant to be seen by all who visit, and unmistakable in its vibrant, darkly sensual warmth. Along with The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Madame X, this work closely reflects Carolus-Duran’s direction, as perceived by Sargent himself: “If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it towards the darks—so that you deal last with your highest lights and darks—you avoid false accents. That’s what Carolus taught me.” Notwithstanding this bit of tutelage, his genius was a genuine contribution to the Paris art world, appreciated year after year at the Salon.

Criticizing The Greater Journey heavy-handedly is like caring too much about the hors d’oeuvres. This is popular history—or, in the words of one critic, popular “heritage”. Complaints about McCullough’s footnoting practice will arise from some critics, as will nitpicks from academic historians about the lack of any French sources. This is nothing new, as one reviewer in 1973 wrote of The Great Bridge: “The author’s method of footnoting is unusual and a little troublesome to the scholar.” In his works, McCullough is unconcerned with making an intellectual contribution, most obviously demonstrated by his airy account of the American Revolution in 1776, which outranks David Hackett Fischer’s vibrant and thoughtful Washington’s Crossing by 14,000 spots on the Amazon best sellers rank. This will be understandably annoying to some, irrelevant to others. In the end, McCullough (and Simon & Schuster) surely know that there are few things Americans love more than a good story and Paris.

The Greater Journey will be well-recommended in any reputable future guidebook to the most-toured city in the world: 78.95 million visitors in 2010. (Buy the Kindle version, though, for your trip. It is a hefty 558 pages.) McCullough’s descriptions of Samuel Morse’s serendipitous inspiration for the telegraph and future abolitionist Charles Sumner’s shock at the equitable French treatment of blacks are truly enjoyable morsels of history for the general reader. But despite the beautiful artwork that adorns the volume outside and in, it aims for little more than to provide the lessons about inspiration, observation, and duty that McCullough has already taught us so well.

Rahul Prabhakar is reading for a DPhil in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford. Rahul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.