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Sweeping narrative history through the prism of Paris

  • Aug 3, 2012
McCullough quietly manages a small masterpiece of narrative history - while "The Greater Journey" is a gentle history of Americans (mostly writers and artists, but also doctors, students, and businessmen) who lived and worked in Paris in the 1800s, McCullough has also managed to retell the traumatic history of the century through their tales and time in Paris.

Journey's three parts roughly correspond to the three epochs of French government in the century:  the last monarch, the Communard rebellion leading to the French republic, and the Franco-Prussian War wiping out and eventually restoring a new republic and Paris purged and refreshed by the long siege of the war.  

As befitting a book about artists and writers, McCullough includes three large sections of illustrations, including most of the art he describes in the text.  The central characters of the story include
  • Samuel Morse, who was a hard-working and respected artist before inventing the dominant telegraph and code  system which bears his name.  
  • James Fenimore Cooper, Morse's friend and expatriate writer, the first great American novelist who wrote much of his iconic Longstocking series in Paris.  
  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens, born in the United States to a working class French immigrant father and Irish mother, who shaped his talent for sculpting into the dominant position in his field through painstaking perfectionism and attention to detail.
  • Mary Cassatt, the pioneering female painter who supported her family in Paris financially through her constant painting and physically through her care during the deteriorating health of her sister and mother.
  • John Singer Sargent, the brilliant but equally well-liked young painter who seemed to succeed effortlessly but remained hard-working and humble.

The constant throughout is Paris, even through its dramatic changes from medieval city to modern home of broad boulevards, technical marvels, and the Eiffel Tower.  Paris in spring, the beauty of the Seine, the prevalence and persistence of arts and culture, all served to draw Americans back to Paris through the changes and the hardships of poverty and war, both at home and abroad.

And through it all, McCullough weaves the tale of the century, so gently that at first the reader may not recognize how broadly and smoothly he is receiving it from a master historian.

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review by . July 04, 2011
I enjoy books by David McCullough very much, and this latest one is no exception. He has taken a little-known slice of American history and turned it into a large and extremely interesting work.      The book details the many young Americans who gravitated to Paris during the 19th century. They came as students of literature, politics, medicine, and the various arts. Paris beckoned because, at that time, it was the center of much culture for the Western world. These young people …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2011: At first glance,The Greater Journey: Americans in Parismight seem to be foreign territory for David McCullough, whose other books have mostly remained in the Western Hemisphere. ButThe Greater Journeyis still a quintessentially American history. Between 1830 and 1900, hundreds of Americans--many of them future household names like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Samuel Morse, and Harriet Beecher Stowe--migrated to Paris. McCullough shows first how the City of Light affected each of them in turn, and how they helped shape American art, medicine, writing, science, and politics in profound ways when they came back to the United States. McCullough's histories have always managed to combine meticulous research with sheer enthusiasm for his subjects, and it's hard not to come away with a sense that you've learned something new and important about whatever he's tackled.The Greater Journey is, like each of McCullough's previous histories, a dazzling and kaleidoscopic foray into American history by one of its greatest living chroniclers. --Darryl Campbell
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ISBN-10: 1416571760
ISBN-13: 978-1416571766
Author: David McCullough
Genre: History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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