I normally prefer fiction to history books but this title had me at Paris. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris was written by two-time Pulitzer Prize author David McCullough. This is a sizable book; 536 pages of deeply researched history requiring 76 pages of source notes and bibliography.
I was excited to get into this book hoping it touched on early 20th century Americans in Paris. But you won’t find Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Stein in these pages. McCullough stays devoted to the 19th century Americans such as George Healy, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and many more who, over seven decades, became the original Americans to showcase French influence through their artistry.
Not all who traveled to Paris were artists and writers. Elihu Washburn, the US Minister to France at the time, may have been one of the most moving characters in this book. At the Library of Congress, McCullough and his research team uncovered Washburn’s detailed daily journals that were buried amongst letters and other documents. These journals had never before been published. The monumental discovery of these exquisite writings enabled McCullough to shine a spotlight on Washburn and his gallant efforts during the Franco-Prussia War. McCullough’s admiration is apparent as he expands on Washburn’s earlier life and how the great struggles on a farm with eleven siblings motivated a successful career in politics. Mostly though, Elihu Washburn attributed his astounding accomplishments to his mother: “When I think of her labors, her anxieties, her watchfulness, her good and wise counsels and her attention to all our wants, my heart swells with emotions of gratitude toward her which no language can express.” –Elihu Washburn
McCullough’s history includes details of the 1889 Exposition Universalle which featured the newly constructed Eiffel Tower. He also includes the building of The Statue of Liberty and the evolution of the inventions of Thomas Edison and Samuel Morse. The historical detail in the book is staggering. When I finally finished the book it felt as though I had completed a semester course in history. History was never this fun.
I enjoyed this book and am in awe of its author. He embodies the very qualities he so clearly admires in his characters. Like them, he too will have an everlasting impact.
Upon release of The Greater Journey in 2011, PBS News Hour did an interview with David McCullough that captures the essence of his book. In the video I saw a striking resemblance between McCullough and Walter Cronkite. Do you?