A populist writer with a gift for readable biography and a reverence for America’s past, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough delivers another compelling work of narrative history in his latest work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

In early America, pioneers were the people who headed west. Deftly re-conceptualizing that notion, McCullough focuses on those Americans who, with the U.S. established and thriving in the first part of the 19th century, set sail eastward, bound for Paris, to experience Euro-pean culture and fill in the blanks that a callow U.S. could not.

With coverage beginning around 1830, McCullough compiles a scrapbook of adventures starring notable Americans from James Fenimore Cooper to Samuel F.B. Morse, each of whom had to endure a wretched voyage, sometimes six weeks in duration. “All who set sail for France,” he writes, “were taking their lives in their hands, and to this could be added the prospect of being unimaginably far from friends, family and home, entirely out of touch with familiar surroundings.”

In lively prose, McCullough introduces his reader to a Paris that, while still “a medieval city,” was nevertheless a thriving mecca of opera, theater, art, books, music, fashion, architecture, science and medicine. It was also a place of freer societal attitudes, yet one that remained a haven for tradition.

Unlike the more recent, disputatious era of U.S.-Franco relations (remember “freedom fries”?), McCullough’s France is where the American flag was flown as a symbol of proud friendship and portraits of Abe Lincoln became common in shop windows—and where the rich heritage of America’s revolutionary debt to Lafayette was continuously honored.

Interspersing biographical details within the historical narrative, McCullough covers the flow of American travelers to Paris through about 1900. His subjects are artists like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent; politicians like the abolitionist Charles Sumner and ambassador Elihu Washburne; persons of letters such as Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson  and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the great showman P.T. Barnum; and youthful composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, his genius embraced by none other than Chopin himself.

The City of Light’s obvious charms—and its identity as the center of just about everything—ripple through McCullough’s text. Readers will savor this portrait of a vibrant city whose connection to America’s founding and cultural sustenance forms a permanent bond.

 

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