Summary and book reviews of The Greater Journey by David McCullough

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 Summary

Rated Runner Up Best Book of 2011 by BookBrowse Members

The Greater Journey is the enthralling, inspiring - and until now, untold - story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, ambitious to excel in their work.

After risking the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, these Americans embarked on a greater journey in the City of Light. Most had never left home, never experienced a different culture. None had any guarantee of success. That they achieved so much for themselves and their country profoundly altered American history. As David McCullough writes, "Not all pioneers went west." Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, who enrolled at the Sorbonne because of a burning desire to know more about everything. There he saw black students with the same ambition he had, and when he returned home, he would become the most powerful, unyielding voice for abolition in the U.S. Senate, almost at the cost of his life.

Two staunch friends, James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse, worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Cooper writing and Morse painting what would be his masterpiece. From something he saw in France, Morse would also bring home his momentous idea for the telegraph.

Pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk from New Orleans launched his spectacular career performing in Paris at age 15. George P. A. Healy, who had almost no money and little education, took the gamble of a lifetime and with no prospects whatsoever in Paris became one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the day. His subjects included Abraham Lincoln.

Medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote home of his toil and the exhilaration in "being at the center of things" in what was then the medical capital of the world. From all they learned in Paris, Holmes and his fellow "medicals" were to exert lasting influence on the profession of medicine in the United States.

Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James were all "discovering" Paris, marveling at the treasures in the Louvre, or out with the Sunday throngs strolling the city's boulevards and gardens. "At last I have come into a dreamland," wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, seeking escape from the notoriety Uncle Tom's Cabin had brought her. Almost forgotten today, the heroic American ambassador Elihu Washburne bravely remained at his post through the Franco-Prussian War, the long Siege of Paris and even more atrocious nightmare of the Commune. His vivid account in his diary of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris (drawn on here for the first time) is one readers will never forget. The genius of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of an immigrant shoemaker, and of painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, three of the greatest American artists ever, would flourish in Paris, inspired by the examples of brilliant French masters, and by Paris itself.

Nearly all of these Americans, whatever their troubles learning French, their spells of homesickness, and their suffering in the raw cold winters by the Seine, spent many of the happiest days and nights of their lives in Paris. McCullough tells this sweeping, fascinating story with power and intimacy, bringing us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens's phrase, longed "to soar into the blue." The Greater Journey is itself a masterpiece.

Chapter Four

The Medicals

In addition to the quality of the hospitals, the number of patients, the ability and eminence of the faculty, and the variety of instruction provided, medical training in Paris offered two further important advantages over medical training in the United States. Both had almost entirely to do with the difference in how people saw things in the two countries.

The first was that students making the rounds of the wards in the hospitals of Paris had ample opportunity to examine female patients as well as men. This was not the case in America, where most women would have preferred to die than have a physician - a man - examine their bodies. It was a "delicacy" nearly impossible to surmount, and as a consequence a great many American women did die, and young men in medical training in America seldom had any chance to study the female anatomy, other than in books.

In France this was not so. "The French woman, on the contrary, knows nothing at all of this...

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 ...

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2011

Reviews

BookBrowse

The Greater Journey is a history of Paris-inspired life-changes... a record of the transformative moments that led to greatness and changed the world. Along the way McCullough celebrates the joy, freedom, and beauty Paris offered at that time; notes the loves, sorrows, losses, and important friendships Americans found there; and reminds us that between inspiration and fame came years of determined and good-old American hard work.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

Full Review Members Only (998 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. McCullough (1776) has hit the historical jackpot... a colorful parade of educated, Victorian-era American travelers and their life-changing experiences in Paris.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An ambitious, wide-ranging study of how being in Paris helped spark generations of American genius... A gorgeously rich, sparkling patchwork, eliciting stories from diaries and memoirs to create the human drama McCullough depicts so well.

Library Journal

Starred Review. A highly readable and entertaining travelogue of a special sort, an interdisciplinary treat from a tremendously popular Pulitzer Prize-winning historian... Highly recommended.

The San Francisco Chronicle

The Greater Journey will satisfy McCullough's legion of loyal fans... it will entice a whole new generation of Francophiles, armchair travelers and those Americans lucky enough to go to Paris before they die.

The Washington Post

A lively and entertaining panorama... By the time he shows us the triumphant Exposition Universelle in 1889, witnessed through the eyes of such characters as painters John Singer Sargent and Robert Henri, we share McCullough's enthusiasm for the city and his affection for the many Americans who improved their lives, their talent and their nation by drinking at the fountain that was Paris.

Chicago Sun-Times

There is not an uninteresting page here as one fascinating character after another is explored at a crucial stage of his development... Wonderful, engaging writing full of delighting detail.

Booklist

Starred Review. McCullough’s research is staggering to perceive, and the interpretation he lends to his material is impressive to behold... Expect his latest book to ascend the best-seller lists and be given a place on the year-end best lists.

Los Angeles Times

For more than 40 years, David McCullough has brought the past to life in books distinguished by vigorous storytelling and vivid characterizations... McCullough again finds a slighted subject in The Greater Journey, which chronicles the adventures of Americans in Paris... Wonderfully atmospheric.

The Seattle Times

McCullough's skill as a storyteller is on full display... The idea of telling the story of the French cultural contribution to America through the eyes of a generation of aspiring artists, writers and doctors is inspired... a compelling and largely untold story in American history.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

A Great Journey
David McCullough has crafted a book full of well-defined characters who live and work in a well-imagined setting, and compelling action sequences that make this a real page-turner. But, wait! This isn’t a novel? No, it’s history written in a most ...   Read More

Lynn

How France influenced America
Take some of the most important American authors, artists, doctors, and other historical figures that lived in France for some period of time during the mid-1800's to early 1900's, and you have a really remarkable book about how France influenced ...   Read More

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Samuel Morse and The Gallery of the Louvre

No review can do justice to the range of McCullough's book, the number of intriguing Americans he chronicles, or the important works they produced. Notable, memorable, and especially moving are McCullough's accounts of George Catlin, painter of Native Americans, and the group of Iowans who visited Paris with him; of P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb's triumphant visit; of Harriet Beecher Stowe's almost physical reaction to Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre; of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's rise from a poor apprentice to masterful creator of revolutionary sculptures; of John Singer Sargent's genius as a painter and the creation of his scandalous portrait of the alluring "Madame X".

Samuel Morse One of the most interesting figures among ...

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