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Today I referred to Canada as an exotic location. To be fair, Montreal seems oh so far away when you’re not in the mood to drive. It’s true. So do your magic, Book Genie. Find me a hefty hunk of book to zap us off to another time and place. A simpler time when medicine was considered an art learned by trial and fatal error, not a “science”, and all it took to make it in the world was a strong stomach and a keen eye for fast-approaching cannon balls.

Oh hi, “The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris” written by David McCullough. You’ll do just fine.

Full disclosure: I love David McCullough’s books. I love them so much I want to be them. Even if I could read his work with anything but come-to-mamma open arms, I wouldn’t. Because part of the joy of reading him is knowing that you’re in his capable hands. So just go with him wherever he wants to take you.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

It was the early 1830s when a group of young men in the United States, mostly well-off and white, hinged their futures on going to Paris. The specifics of their burning reasons for going varied in line with their aspirations, but the source of the flame was not very different than our reasons for traveling today. They wanted to expand themselves. To be more because they’ll have seen more of the world.

At this time there were no art schools in the U.S. for an aspiring painter to learn the things he didn’t know. They went to “study hard”; McCullough wouldn’t have bothered with them had they gone to lounge about. Some of them knew or knew of each other, but for the most part they set sail for the Old World alone. The trip was a 3,000 mile ocean journey that took anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on the winds.

Upon leaving Nathaniel Willis wrote,

The dream of my lifetime was about to be realized.

Upon arriving and traveling from ship to Paris by horse, Charles Sumner stopped to view the cathedral at Rouen. He described its architecture in his diary as,

…transcending all that my imagination had pictured.

Artists, writers, doctors and architects all flocked to Paris at a time when America took herself so seriously. When we measured the value of property by the building you could put on it, not the bridges and parks nearby. To travel abroad and return was to bring back more than memories – seeing Marie Taglioni dance, eating fine foods and drinking cafe au lait – it was about bringing back ideas.

McCullough takes us there through snapshots of his subject’s lives, drawn with intimate knowledge gathered from letters and diaries. He follows several generations through to the turn of the century. One of my favorite threads was the life of Samuel Morse, who painted the spectacular Gallery of the Louvre on scrappy, makeshift scaffolding. How he did this and went on to invent Morse Code and the electronic telegraph all while living on the edge of poverty is a story worthy of McCullough’s telling.

Gallery of the Louvre by Samuel Morse

Gallery of the Louvre by Samuel Morse

Morse also happened to be in Paris as Daguerre’s grand idea was taking hold. I didn’t know Daguerre was a theatrical painter who built his own theater, the Diorama. The connection between his craft and invention is one of the passages to read again and again:

…secret techniques for painting scenes on huge, transparent theater drops…which when lit from behind…had a reality beyond anything seen before. [He was] a master illusionist with light…

While the primary focus is American expats, you also get a hearty dose of Paris history. During this period, Napoleon had Haussmann demolish many of the city’s slums and narrows streets in favor of wide avenues, 71 miles of roads in all. And good luck putting this down once you hit the Parisian siege during a bitter winter in the 1850s. The French, Germans and 150 Americans left in the city nearly starved; they ate rats, horses and zoo animals. McCullough wrote they ran out or low on everything but wine, chocolate and mustard.

While studying to be the first American woman to graduate from medicine school, Mary Putnam witnessed the bombarding of the Left Bank. She wrote this of the scene:

It was singularly dramatic … the tombs of Voltaire and Roussaeu sheltering the victims of the Prussian barbarians…”

The way McCullough writes about the struggles of war, politics, science and art with equal depth and love makes me wonder if he’s not really a room full of master historians disguised as a man. The pretty blue eyes are meant to distract us from little cries of “Free me” escaping within. Or not.

As predicted, “The Great Journey” is a history book to sink into. First class armchair travel via the cheapest time machine money can buy. One thing that always embarrasses me about this type of non-fiction is how well people wrote even when they scribbled in their diaries. If a historian should come across the highly sophisticated rooster journal tucked behind my end table, she won’t quite find the same level of fodder McCullough had to work with. Unless “La la la, today I sneezed and cried over chapter nine. And I’m beginning to lose hope that the corner cafe will ever remove their godforsaken Christmas wreath,” will be the sort of thing looked back upon with reverence come 2113.

In conclusion, we will have to us bigger words and quit singing in our journals if we hope to make it into the great history books.

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