Robert Henri, 1888
Americans have been traveling to Paris for almost as long as there have been Americans of European lineage. Some made a special point of going to the French capital in the 1770s when they wanted to quit being British subjects. That Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson went to ask the French to aid their cause is celebrated in many histories. The American Revolution might not have succeeded without French military and financial assistance, but after the war was won, French-American relations cooled somewhat for several decades.
In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, historian and frequent bestselling author David McCullough recounts the second great era of American pilgrimage to Paris, a period stretching from the 1830s to the beginning of the 20th century. The United States had firmly established itself as a nation with an expanding frontier and healthy economy, but some of the sons and daughters of the wealthy sought learning and pleasure that could only be found in Europe. Ignoring the prevailing sentiment against the Old World, young medical students, lawyers, writers, and artists boarded crowded wooded ships (and later steamships) for the long and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to spend months or years away from family in Paris.
I was surprised to learn that in the early 19th century, Paris was the world's center for medical education. If they could prove worthy of admission, foreign students could attend any of the various hospital-based medical schools for free. Oliver Wendell Holmes and dozens of other Americans enrolled and learned about evidence-based diagnosis and other modern trends in the practice of medicine. Their generation then established their own medical schools in America.
McCullough profiles many individuals in the course of his epic book. Many of their names are familiar, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent. My favorite story, however, is about a lesser-known figure, Elihu B. Washburne, a former U.S. congressman who was sent by President Grant to be ambassador to France in 1869. Washburne was in his post at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. He helped many Americans and Germans escape the country before the Siege of Paris and personally directed humanitarian efforts throughout the war. He risked his own liberty and fortune to feed and rescue many innocent victims of the war. He also helped negotiate the peace agreement.
Readers who have enjoyed McCullough's award-winning biographies will find the author focuses sequentially on many figures in this new book, but he retains the intimate perspective of prior work as he uses many diaries and letters to let the individuals speak for themselves. Readers will, of course, also learn much about the character of Paris and Parisians. Now that it has dropped off the bestseller lists, there should be plenty of copies available in libraries.
McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Simon and Schuster, 2011. 558p. ISBN 9781416571766.
also, Simon and Schuster Audio. 16 compact discs. ISBN 9781442344181.