three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
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0

Americans in Paris

A-GreaterJourneyCelebrated historian David McCullough is a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (Truman [1992] and John Adams [2001]) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 [1977] and Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt [1981].) The Greater Journey is McCullough's 10th book. Recently Reviewed: 1776 ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005).

The Topic: Long after the American Revolution ended, France continued to have a profound impact on the fledgling republic. "Not all pioneers went west," notes McCullough, and from 1830 to 1900, a steady stream of Americans made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to study and work in the City of Light. Charles Sumner became a vociferous critic of slavery after attending classes alongside black students at the Sorbonne. Samuel F. B. Morse revolutionized communications with the telegraph, and architect Charles Bulfinch patterned the U.S. Capitol after Parisian monuments. John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Fenimore Cooper, and many others made significant contributions to art and literature during visits to Paris. The revolutionary ideas imported by these intrepid travelers reshaped the American way of life.
Simon & Schuster. 576 pages. $37.50. ISBN: 9781416571766

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There is not an uninteresting page here as one fascinating character after another is explored at a crucial stage of his development. ... 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." John Barron

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The eminent historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001), has woven a scintillating account of young Americans, driven by wanderlust, setting out in search of greener Parisian pastures. ... McCullough's superb writing style--an exquisite combination of crisp academic inclination with a light, whimsical storytelling component--brings these unique characters to life in a robust, exciting manner." Michael Taube

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The depth and breadth of McCullough's research and the exuberance of his storytelling make The Greater Journey a pleasure, but also a frustration. Despite its plethora of interesting information and stories, the book never offers a definitive explanation for why Paris was such a signal destination for 19th-century Americans (why not Rome or London?), nor does it draw any conclusions about how Paris influenced the still-youthful nation across the pond." Rebecca Steinitz

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His well-written text is so episodic that it ultimately seems unfocused. It should be noted that it's also wonderfully atmospheric, right down to the closing glimpse of Isadora Duncan and her brother dancing with excitement through the Luxembourg Gardens in 1900. Readers content with an accumulation of such striking moments will find The Greater Journey an agreeable, though slightly aimless, expedition." Wendy Smith

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[McCullough] is forced to make awkward juxtapositions and segues among people who did not cross the Atlantic at the same time (though ‘everyone knew the perils of the sea'), did not live a shared narrative and did not share all that much common ground. He ends up delivering the kinds of space-filling observations that might not even pass muster in a high-school history paper. This is not the side of Mr. McCullough that has made him a national treasure." Janet Maslin

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"McCullough's skill as a storyteller is on full display here as he relates the treacherous Atlantic crossing, the horse-drawn carriages and less-than-ideal plumbing that greeted the travelers, many of whom had little exposure to anything outside the rural U.S. ... But the effort in several ways falls disappointingly short of its early promise. The historical narrative is disjointed." Kevin J. Hamilton

Critical Summary

Although the critics were quick to praise McCullough's superb writing style and renowned storytelling abilities, they had mixed reactions to his latest work. Rather than the tightly focused, measured narratives that have gained him a worldwide readership, The Greater Journey consists of a series of minibiographies and historical events strung together by, in many cases, the most tenuous of threads. And most critics agreed that while McCullough's harrowing descriptions of France's turbulent 19th-century history make for thrilling reading, they are irrelevant to the book's intended subject. On the other hand, a lesser work by McCullough is nonetheless a literary phenomenon and will appeal to history enthusiasts. "This is history to be savored rather than sprinted through, like a Parisian meal" (New York Times Book Review).