Bruce Allen
Bruce Allen

Book: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster 2011)

Author: David McCullough

Reviewer: Dr. Bruce S. Allen, head of post, honorary consul of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the Southern and Southeastern United States of America

With the recent tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, it may be difficult for many of us in the United States to remember the tremendously important role that Paris has played in the development of our country, our culture and our art. So, if you need to reconnect with that important relationship, there’s a book for that.

David McCullough’s 2011 book, The Greater Journey-Americans in Paris, is unparalleled in its absorbing description of why in that time from about 1830 through 1900 so many Americans — young, old, rich, poor, artistic, academic, or just adventurous—became expatriates and moved to work, study, and enhance their lives in the City of Lights. Who were these people, and what was it like sailing over the Atlantic, sometimes for a month or more through terrible storms, on packet ships carrying mostly cargo interspaced with a few seasick intrepid souls?

What was it like to land in a country so foreign and ancient compared to the then-young United States, a land with a language that most of the travelers did not speak, and a land where the laws, culture, daily practices, modes of transport, diseases and opportunities were completely different from home. Most of these expatriates had never traveled outside their home state and very few even knew one person already living in France. What motivated these people, what was their time like there, and what did they bring back to America that made our country so much richer?

Well, you know the people about whom McCullough writes. They are everyday names in history and art classes. People like Samuel F.B. Morse, already a famous American portrait painter and recently devastated by the death of his wife, moved to Paris to lose himself in his art and because of what he learned there would return to America to create the telegraph and Morse code. James Fenimore Cooper, the author of The Last of the Mohicans, would move his wife and six children to Paris. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Harvard graduate and poet, would study medicine there as would John Warren Collins, the founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital, and as would Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America.  The list goes on—Emerson, Gottschaulk, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Saint-Gaudens, Cassatt, Singer Sergeant.

I cannot recommend this book enough. The first chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and the later chapters, especially the one describing American Ambassador Elihu Washburne’s experiences during the Franco-Prussian War siege, occupation, and subsequent horrible time of the Commune presage the devastation that would visit Europe during the first half of the 20th century.  This book shows us what a tremendous debt we owe to these expatriates, because as McCullough writes, “Not all pioneers went West.”

Read Dr. Allen’s review from last year: Books 2014: The Assassination of the Archduke