Becky and I are back from Paris where we spent an incredible holiday week. We celebrated New Years by walking down the Champs-Élysées with a bottle of champagne and friends that we’ve had for a decade. Intoxicating, even without the champagne. Earlier in the week, I officiated the wedding for one of those friends and that only added to the magical atmosphere of the entire week. In the 14th century, someone wrote that Paris is the “mother and the mistress” of all cities. Apt. I know I will be back.
Of course, along the way, I had to do a little reading on the City of Light. I chose David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” I loved it.
My last McCullough book was about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge–one of my favorite books I’ve read since starting this blog. “The Greater Journey” was not quite as good, but it provided a perfect introduction to a city that this American was visiting for the first time.
The book begins in the early part of the 1830s and ends around the turn of the century. McCullough doesn’t hit you over the head with the premise, but it doesn’t take long to pick up what he’s putting down: Americans have gone to Paris for centuries for inspiration in the arts, medicine, invention, and literature, and the city, like perhaps no other foreign city, has a connection to America that is intense and special.
Early on in the book, he describes the journey of many Americans on their first trip to Paris. It was a grueling trip across the pond, in ships with awful conditions. It was a far cry from our business class upgrade that we received because Delta overbooked our flight. (Thank you Delta!) But upon seeing the city for the first time, Americans marveled at its physical layout and its history and culture. Once we landed, I could relate.
The book tracks various Americans who lived in Paris for short or long periods, including Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Elihu Washburne, and Charles Sumner. Not all household names, but some.
The history McCullough offered here was accessible for a novice in world history like me. (Remember my ill-advised attempt to read that book about the Popes?) I could easily connect what he described with the City as I walked around and toured. Washburne’s story brought alive Paris during the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the subsequent Commune in a way that no history book ever could. Visiting the Louvre after reading about Morse’s efforts to paint “Gallery of the Louvre” made the experience more intense. Seeing the impressionist paintings in the Musee d’Orsay was even more incredible knowing about the artist community that sprung up in Paris in the second half of the 1800s. We visited Galignani’s bookstore, visited the Eiffel Tower (of course), and saw first hand the contributions of Louis-Phillippe and Lafayette, two French figures with deep ties to America.
McCullough’s perspective feels like he’s telling us about Paris through the eyes of these Americans, who were aware of the legend of the city but had never visited. That was also much appreciated. Because of the book, I felt a connection to the many Americans who had come before me to visit the city for the first time, to take it all in.
The message here is that you must go to Paris. Not just for the food or the sights or the art, which is all spectacular, but because the American experience is so deeply tied to the city. You feel it often while there, and I hope I’m only being slightly over-dramatic when I say that seeing Paris and its history up close helped me understand our cities and our country a bit more than I had before. The American connection to Paris is crucial, and McCullough deserves credit for presenting this not so easily blurbed concept in a book, and in a way that is just magnificent storytelling.
I also played around with the book “Paris: The Biography of a City” while I was there. It’s by Colin Jones, and I enjoyed some of it, but it’s more dense than McCullough’s. For a new visitor to the city, I’d recommend “The Greater Journey” to see how Americans in history have seen Paris for the first time and been inspired by it for centuries. I think you’ll be able to relate.