My review #45: The Greater Journey

The Greater Journey:

Americans in Paris




456 pages


This book counts for

My Dewey Decimal Challenge

and for

The 2011 Non-Fiction Challenge


Although this is a big and heavy book, I devoured it in no time. McCullough does a superb job here, witnessing to dozens of American artists, medical doctors, engineers, politicians, etc., who went to France in the 19th century, in order to learn their trade, to improve at it at the contact with French masters, or to see what their art/practice was worth.

The book is organized according to plans before leaving, their first reactions while arriving in France and then in Paris, how they settled in, how they coped with the political uprisings of the time, and what happened when they left or kept going back and forth both 2 countries.

It is excellent at the level of international relations between the 2 countries, at the biographical level of all those mentioned her, at the social level, with differences and reactions, and at the historical and cultural level; if you need to refresh your French history on the 19th century, read this book, it’s excellent on the 2nd Empire, its fall, la Commune, etc.
Another book I wished had been written back then when I was studying history in France!

There are also fantastic details on the invention of so many new machines of the time, starting with the telegraph, on new medical procedures, and on American painters, architects and sculptors, in relation with all the French Expositions Universelles of that century.

You could actually use this book as a tourist guide, going to places where these people lived and thrived.

My only disappointment was the very last paragraph – it does not sound like a conclusion, and comes a bit flat – but maybe that was intentional, implying that still many Americans go to Paris every year, though probably for very different reasons – and that could be another interesting book to write!

If I have not convinced you yet that you HAVE to read this book, have a look at this great book trailer.


The Greater Journey is the enthralling, inspiring—and until now, untold—story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, ambitious to excel in their work.

After risking the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, these Americans embarked on a greater journey in the City of Light. Most had never left home, never experienced a different culture. None had any guarantee of success. That they achieved so much for themselves and their country profoundly altered American history. As David McCullough writes, “Not all pioneers went west.” Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, who enrolled at the Sorbonne because of a burning desire to know more about everything. There he saw black students with the same ambition he had, and when he returned home, he would become the most powerful, unyielding voice for abolition in the U.S. Senate, almost at the cost of his life.

Two staunch friends, James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse, worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Cooper writing and Morse painting what would be his masterpiece. From something he saw in France, Morse would also bring home his momentous idea for the telegraph.

Pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk from New Orleans launched his spectacular career performing in Paris at age 15. George P. A. Healy, who had almost no money and little education, took the gamble of a lifetime and with no prospects whatsoever in Paris became one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the day. His subjects included Abraham Lincoln.

Medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote home of his toil and the exhilaration in “being at the center of things” in what was then the medical capital of the world. From all they learned in Paris, Holmes and his fellow “medicals” were to exert lasting influence on the profession of medicine in the United States.

Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James were all “discovering” Paris, marveling at the treasures in the Louvre, or out with the Sunday throngs strolling the city’s boulevards and gardens. “At last I have come into a dreamland,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, seeking escape from the notoriety Uncle Tom’s Cabin had brought her. 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 even more atrocious nightmare of the Commune. His vivid account in his diary of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris (drawn on here for the first time) is one readers will never forget. The genius of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of an immigrant shoemaker, and of painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, three of the greatest American artists ever, would flourish in Paris, inspired by the examples of brilliant French masters, and by Paris itself.

Nearly all of these Americans, whatever their troubles learning French, their spells of homesickness, and their suffering in the raw cold winters by the Seine, spent many of the happiest days and nights of their lives in Paris. McCullough tells this sweeping, fascinating story with power and intimacy, bringing us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens’s phrase, longed “to soar into the blue.” The Greater Journey is itself a masterpiece [Goodreads].


David Gaub McCullough is an American historian and bestselling author. A two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he is widely referred to as a “master of the art of narrative history.” Among his most well-known books are The Path Between the Seas, Truman, John Adams, and his most recent volume, 1776 (a New York Times and Amazon bestseller). He is part of an emerging group of celebrity historians. He is also a familiar presence on public television — as the host of Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and as the narrator of many well-regarded, highly accessible, and facile documentaries. [Goodreads]

EDIT ADDED ON 7/7/2021:
Since then, I read another fabulous book by McCullough: The Wright Brothers. Highly recommended biography.



19 thoughts on “My review #45: The Greater Journey

  1. This book also seems a perfect fit for Paris in July, hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea and Karen of Bookbath.

    And, it made me think of the reviews I’ve seen of The Most Beautiful Walk In The World by John Baxter.

    I love Paris, so much, having been there many, many times, but not since 2001. That’s too long! Thanks for such a great review that I want to buy this book for my colletion right now. (Soon, I’ll be reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, so I think this would be a good follow-up, don’t you?)

    p.s. When I was on WordPress this particular template of yours was one of my favorites. If I was back, I’d use it myself. The green is so beautiful to me…along with the clarity of design.


    • thanks for visiting my blog and reading my review on The Greater Journey, yes go for it, I keep talking to it to everyone, it’s so excellent.
      Last year, in May, I read Madame Leon GRANDIN, A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition. I t was very interesting too, but of course not as good as McCullough, and more limited in scope, as the title says. unfortunately, I was not that of a dedicated book blogegr then, so here are just a few lines I wrote abbout it; it’s the 2nd book on that post:
      Yes, I enjoy the simplicity of this template. Emma


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