Reading guide for The Greater Journey by David McCullough

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The Greater Journey

Americans in Paris

By David McCullough

The Greater Journey
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  • Hardcover: May 2011,
    576 pages.
    Paperback: May 2012,
    752 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Discussion Questions

  1. The Greater Journey opens with a quotation by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens: "For we constantly deal with practical problems, with moulders, contractors, derricks, stonemen, trucks, rubbish, plasterers, and what-not-else, all while trying to soar into the blue." How does this quotation set the stage for The Greater Journey? What kinds of "practical problems" did Americans in Paris face, and how did they manage to "soar into the blue?"


  2. What were some of the challenges travelers faced on the journey from America to Paris? "Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun, as they already sensed, and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and their country than they yet knew." What is the "greater journey" that these Americans began after their voyage across the ocean? Why do you think McCullough chose the title The Greater Journey for this book?


  3. Describing Augustus Saint-Gaudens, McCullough writes, "he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus became accomplished himself." What were some of the reasons that Americans made the trip to Paris? What did they need to accomplish in Paris, and how did they become accomplished there?


  4. Describe the role of women within the community of Americans in Paris. What unique problems did women face in the city during the 19th century? How did female students, artists, and wives write about their experiences in Paris, as compared to their male counterparts?


  5. Describe the friendship between James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse. What seems to have drawn these men of different backgrounds and professions to each other? What kind of support did Cooper offer Morse during the creation of Gallery of the Louvre, and how did Morse include the Cooper family within the painting?


  6. The painter George Healy sailed to Paris in the 1830s, and according to his granddaughter, "His love of France and the French never changed him from an out-and-out American." Which of the other travelers within The Greater Journey would you also describe as out-and-out Americans? How did they express their patriotism while they lived overseas?


  7. Consider the significance of letters and journals within the book. What kind of information does McCullough draw from historical letters and diaries? How would you compare the importance of letters and journals in the 19th century to the present day? How have issues of privacy, diplomacy, and record-keeping changed?


  8. In The Greater Journey, we see France in political turmoil - Restoration, Franco-Prussian War, and Commune-led Paris - through the eyes of the young sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, medical student Mary Putnam, and the diplomat Elihu Washburne. What perspective on politics and violence does each of them offer? How do their motivations and opinions on war and revolution differ?


  9. Oliver Wendell Holmes called medicine "the noblest of arts." How is medical study portrayed in The Greater Journey? What advances in the profession does the book chronicle? What are some major differences between medical practice in 19th-century Paris and medicine as we know it today? Compare the two painters who dominate the final chapters of The Greater Journey: Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. How were their lives and work similar, and how were they different?


  10. How would you classify The Greater Journey - is it the history of a community, the history of a place, or both? What is McCullough's particular style of narrating history? Which of McCullough's "narrators" - the men and women who witnessed the history of Paris - provides the clearest view of his or her environment?


  11. If you could tour Paris with any of the historical figures in The Greater Journey, who would it be? Would you want to explore the Louvre with Samuel Morse, discuss politics with Elihu Washburne, attend a concert with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, witness surgery with Elizabeth Blackwell, or appraise canvases with John Singer Sargent? Explain your answer.

Reading guide reproduced with permission from Simon & Schuster.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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