The Greater Journey | David McCullough

Summary of: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
By: David McCullough


Embark on a captivating journey through Paris in ‘The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris’ by acclaimed author David McCullough. Discover the lives of influential Americans who lived and worked in the French capital from the 1820s to the 1900s. Explore how Paris acted as a beacon of inspiration, nurturing talents like James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Mary Cassatt, and many more. Witness the city’s thriving art, medicine, and cultural scenes, and learn how Paris became a second home for these determined individuals seeking great achievements and personal growth. Prepare to enter a world of profound transformation, intertwined histories, and unforgettable human experiences.

Paris, a Haven for American Artists and Thinkers

In the 1820s, renowned American personalities like James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Emma Willard, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Parker Willis and Thomas Gold Appleton flocked to Paris. A perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing ship did not deter them from enjoying the city’s rich cultural resources. Paris boasted of magnificent tourist attractions including the Palais Royal, the Louvre, and the Palace and Garden of the Tuileries, stunning public parks, and a highly developed city infrastructure. Though not without challenges such as a cholera epidemic, Paris remained “a place where one wanted to walk, where to walk – flâner, as the French said – was practically a way of life” and to live joyfully. Paris left an indelible mark on these American visitors, and many of them represented the best of America while in Paris, hoping to credit America in foreign lands.

Paris: The World’s Leading Medical Center

In the 1830s, Paris was a hub for medical education, boasting renowned physicians and an unparalleled medical school library. Despite not yet understanding sterilization and lacking anesthesia, Paris was ahead of its time in terms of medical advancements. The medical community also responded bravely in times of political unrest, attracting enthusiastic students from around the world, including aspiring black physicians who were treated as equals. Many American doctors who trained in Paris received great deference when they returned home. Beyond medicine, Paris also flourished in the arts, with women being integrated into the art scene. Morse, who initially pursued painting in Paris, ended up inventing the telegraph and revolutionizing communication, further linking the Old and New World.

Paris Under Napoleon III

In 1848, France established a new republic which was recognized by the USA. However, the country fell into unrest, leading to the June Days Uprising riots. After this, the Second Republic was established, and Louis Napoléon was elected as the new president. However, after a few years, he staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor Napoléon III, establishing the Second Empire. One of his major projects was redeveloping Paris into a world capital. The city underwent upgrades in aesthetics, architecture, and function to make it a healthier place to live. Paris fostered its uniform Beaux-Arts architectural style and saw the creation of beautiful parks and sidewalk cafés. The renovation of the city and advancements in transatlantic travel drew even more American visitors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Napoleon III’s achievements included hosting the 1855 Paris Exposition and laying the transoceanic telegraph cable in 1858.

Paris in Peril

Discover the story of American artists and intellectuals in Paris during key events in history. From the US Civil War to the Paris Commune, they witnessed and persevered through war, siege, and revolution.

In the mid-1800s, Paris was the hub of art, innovation, and culture, attracting American artists and intellectuals seeking inspiration and economic opportunities. Many returned to the US to influence American art and society. As the US Civil War began in 1861, Parisians revealed their sympathies for the Confederacy, but France welcomed Americans back after the war’s end.

In 1867, the Exposition Universelle drew millions of visitors, including American artists. But, just a few years later, much of Paris would be in ruins during the Franco-Prussian War. Thousands of Americans fled the city as it became clear that Paris would soon be under siege. Elihu B. Washburne, the US minister to France, chose to stay and help innocent residents, including Germans, escape the city. Amid the siege and after the Paris Commune of violence, Washburne’s detailed journal of daily events saved historic accounts from being lost.

The Paris Commune, a dark two months beginning in March 1871, occurred when those opposed to the French government takeover ignited violence and chaos. Random arrests, property seizures, and murders plagued the city in a reign of terror, dwarfing that of the French revolution. Unfortunately, the French army invaded the city in May, killing thousands and burning down much of the city, including the Palace of the Tuileries.

Throughout Paris’s tumultuous history, American intellectuals and artists flocked there to study, paint, write, or meditate. Despite war, siege, and revolution, they persevered, leaving a lasting impression on American art and society.

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