Listening to the stories of dozens of ambitious and creative Americans in Paris from 1830 to the early 1900s was like listening to your grandpa tell stories of generations past. It was entertaining, enlightening, and rather inspirational to learn about all the artists, writers, architects, and medical students, among others, who went to Paris for the experience of nurturing their creativity.
About the book: As David McCullough writes, “Not all pioneers went west.” In The Greater Journey, he tells the enthralling, inspiring—and until now, untold—story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, and others who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, hungry to learn and to excel in their work. What they achieved would profoundly alter American history. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, whose encounters with black students at the Sorbonne inspired him to become the most powerful voice for abolition in the U.S. Senate. Friends James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Morse not only painting what would be his masterpiece, but also bringing home his momentous idea for the telegraph. Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Paris to escape the controversy generated by her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Three of the greatest American artists ever—sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent—flourished in Paris, inspired by French masters. 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 the nightmare of the Commune. His vivid diary account of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris is published here for the first time. Telling their stories with power and intimacy, McCullough brings us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens’ phrase, longed “to soar into the blue.”
David McCullough reads only the introduction and then Edward Herrmann takes over. Much of each person’s story in this book relies on direct quotes and information found in personal letters. This gave the narrative an atmosphere of intimacy. I wasn’t always interested in each person under review, but when McCullough’s focus was on a person of interest or a story that was more engaging than the rest, time with this audio flew. Even those sections or people in which I wasn’t very interested were never “boring.” There were always interesting bits added about the time period and changes underway.
I especially enjoyed the parts that focused on writers: much time is spent with James Fenimore Cooper. Shorter episodes touch on the Parisian experience of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, and Henry James.
Of great interest was the experiences of Elihu Washburne, the American Ambassador to France, who toughed out the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and horror of the Commune. All of the other foreign diplomats skipped town, but Washburne was there to help fellow Americans and other residents of Paris through the war, starvation, and madness. And Charles Sumner’s experience of attending medical school with fellow students that were black changed not only his mind about slavery, but helped change the course of American history.
The listening time for this book was just over 16 hours. There is an abridged audio version, but why bother? Yes, I’m a snob about abridged books.
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
Read by Edward Herrmann
16 Discs: 16 hours, 56 minutes (unabridged)
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommend: to folks interested in a broad overview of American & French creative culture, technological innovation, and medicine of the 19th century (as seen through the eyes of financially well-off Americas from the time period).