The Greater Journey:
Americans in Paris
by David McCullough
“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free," Jefferson said, "expects what never was and never will be." And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.” ― David McCullough
The theme of this book as stated in the opening chapter states that of the first group of Americans to go overseas to Paris: “Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun . . .and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and to their country than they yet knew.”
McCullough focuses on the development of American culture, as artists and thinkers such as the painter Mary Cassatt, the future Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, who studied at the Sorbonne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., then a young medical student, and so many others experienced Paris in the 19th century.
It was a time and pace of excitement apace in the world of ideas with the expansion of knowledge in medicine, the arts, philosophy, and Paris was a center of this activity. Americans were drawn to this center throughout the century from Samuel F. B. Morse and Nathaniel Willis, painters, to Augustus Saint Gaudens, the sculptor. Writers as diverse as James Fennimore Cooper and Henry James. In fact Henry and his brother William spent some of their youth in Paris while getting a European education. The breadth of those who participated in these journeys was incredible, especially given the dangers of ocean crossing which early in the century before the advent of steamship lines took about a month. "Paris was the medical capital of the world. Our medical training was woefully behind. And this was a chance to perfect their skills and their profession, but also to come back and teach what they had learned, which almost all of them did. And the others were pioneers in launching into careers for which there was no training available here. There were no schools of architecture. There were no schools of art. There were no museums where you could go and look at paintings. It's hard to believe that, but that's how it was. It was the cultural capital of the world." (from an interview with David McCullough on PBS)
Harriet Beecher Stowe wondered what was the mysterious allure of Paris. She thought it might be the river Seine, likening it to the Ohio which she knew well. She went beyond to compare art to literature, matching authors with painters. While she questioned the value of French art when she stated “French life has more pretty pictures and popular lithographs . . . but it produces very little of the deepest and highest style of art.”, the Americans who were beginning an new American tradition learned much from their experiences in Paris.
One Frenchman who inspired many of the Americans who journeyed to Paris was the inimitable Marquis de Lafayette. His efforts in the revolutionary war and his return visit to America in 1824 when he received tremendous acclaim led several of the travelers his way on their sojourns in Paris. Primarily this book is a history of lives and ideas. McCullough's book challenges the reader to expand his notion of what education meant and what Americans gained from the French beyond their diplomatic and financial support as the United States grew into a great nation in the nineteenth century.
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