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David McCullough’s ‘Journey’ finds American tales in 19th century Paris

Historian author David McCullough poses with art by American artist George Catlone seekers featured his new book The Greater Journey:

Historian and author David McCullough poses with art by American artist George Catlin, one of the seekers featured in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. | Jacquelyn Martin~AP

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By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, 560 pages, $37.50

● The author will discuss and sign copies of his book at 6 p.m. June 13 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State.

Updated: July 8, 2011 2:40PM

For the Lost Generation of American writers, Paris became the place to lick a wound and find a muse. Everybody knows the romantic story of American artists and writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who holed up in the City of Light after World War I.

Now the great, popular historian David McCullough turns our attention to their lesser-heralded forebears — a sort of Found Generation.

In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, McCullough offers a vast group portrait of the seekers who came to Paris between 1830 and 1900. All citizens of a new country with few cultural traditions, they sought inspiration, instruction and broadened horizons.

Paris always held the answer, providing history, civility and deep education (philosophical or practical) either in a school or at the studio.

McCullough, who has made his reputation on detailed, sprawling books with a narrow focus at their heart (Harry Truman, John Adams, building the Panama Canal, 1776), is less disciplined here with this relatively open-ended outing. Without having to tie everything together under a grander conceit, he’s able to drop in and tell the stories of these intrepid Americans who had the vision, the scratch and the guts to endure a monthlong crossing to the Old World.

There is not an uninteresting page here as one fascinating character after another is explored at a crucial stage of his development.

James Fenimore Cooper, already famous as perhaps America’s first and finest author, spends decades in Paris filling out his bookshelf with more novels and “Leatherstocking Tales,” no doubt inspired by a local audience eager to hear about wilderness America.

Cooper mentors a young painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, who spends untold hours in the magnet that was the Louvre until he decides to do a portrait of it. From the inside. His outrageous conceit was to put on one canvas a view of one of the galleries, complete with copies of 40-some Old Masters.

While the magnificent “Gallery of the Louvre” did not fetch him the fortune he sought, he left France with a bigger idea — the telegraph. The story of its development is edge-of-your-seat stuff as Morse perfects the instrument but then struggles to get proper patents overseas.

Politicians, such as Charles Sumner, experienced epiphanies in Paris. He encountered black people for the first time outside the context of slavery. The big idea: They are like everyone else. Sumner goes on to be a U.S. senator, a vociferous abolitionist and the man who almost lost his life for the cause during an infamous caning on the Senate floor.

McCullough marshals a great parade, running from the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who brought back basic medical ideas from Parisian surgeons to those of vanguard American artists such as John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whose figurative sculpture, honed in Paris, would become the standard U.S. memorial statuary).

The cultural traffic occasionally went the other way, as when P.T. Barnum came to town and created a frenzy with 2-foot-tall General Tom Thumb. Louis Gottschalk stunned the concert halls with his souped-up, Creole-based piano compositions. And painter George Catlin, who couldn’t sell a canvas at home, caused a sensation when he arrived with stunning portraits of Native Americans — and brought some of his brightly feathered subjects with him to the boulevards.

McCullough can’t ignore the city, the backdrop for his survey. The Greater Journey is also a history of Paris through the decades. It is place full of political unrest (manning the barricades) and inspired re-invention (the destruction of old, cramped Paris by the master planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann). And, inevitably, we get the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower, which would serve as the city’s totem for the next century and beyond.


There are a lot of moving pieces here: The range of characters, topics and time periods is sometimes staggering. And there are a lot of loosely connected narratives of wonderful, engaging writing full of delighting detail.

They reveal a powerful French connection to America pioneered by those who “found” themselves there.

John Barron is publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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