The young nation’s best and brightest go to Paris

The young nation’s best and brightest go to Paris

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“The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, May 24, 2011. 576 pp. $37.50.

In 1826, when the celebrated author James Fenimore Cooper set forth from New York for a long sojourn in Paris, there were neither ocean-going steamships nor regular passenger vessels, and the North Atlantic crossing in a two-masted square-rigger could last as long as six weeks. The voyage down from Le Havre in a lumbering stagecoach required another 24 hours of fortitude. Nonetheless, in the decades since Thomas Jefferson had pronounced his five years in the French capital arguably the most memorable of his life, Paris had begun to register as an important destination for aspiring young Americans.

Cooper, who had just published “The Last of the Mohicans,” was one of the first, and at 37, oldest of the wave of countrymen drawn to Paris in the 19th century, and hoped to improve his health and educate his children. Others were determined to become writers or painters, study medicine or, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, simply find themselves. They sensed that Paris, with its universities and museums, architectural splendors and Old World culture, had the power to elevate and to renew. As David McCullough describes in his new book “The Greater Journey,” Paris seemed essential to achieving a dream.

“The Greater Journey” is a grand panoramic tour of an era that might have been called the American Enlightenment, as a mere listing of its eminent subjects suggests — Samuel L. Morse, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens are but a few. At an easy and ever stately pace and with a knowing and appreciative eye, McCullough weaves together a compendium of stories of quests, adventures, and accomplishments, of arrivals, exits, and returns. Few of the travelers had been abroad, or knew much about Paris beyond its fashions or about French literature beyond Voltaire and La Fontaine; American eyes were clear, their perspective fresh.

In early pages, as he settles into the city as well as his chronicle, McCullough lingers on the close friendship of Cooper and the portrait painter Samuel Morse — they had first met at the White House during Lafayette’s last visit to America — who sat together in the Louvre several hours a day while Morse toiled on the immense painting-of-paintings he called the Gallery of the Louvre. The work, which pictures the Salon Carré filled with an extravagance of classical masterpieces, includes among the viewers in the room a young woman sketching and the artist himself, which is its own tribute to Paris as a classroom. It brings to mind a sumptuous atelier, which, with its red walls and Renaissance treasures and aura of privilege, emits a wonderful glow.

Cooper, whose exotic tales of the New World enchanted the French, wrote eight more novels during his years in Paris. Morse, who had declared that he was “made to be a painter,” hatched an idea for the electro-magnetic telegraph while there and returned home to become an inventor. His acquaintance with Louis Daguerre during a later visit — “one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age,” he said of the exquisitely delineated little images — led him into portrait photography and a daguerreotype studio of his own in New York.

Moving through the many worlds of Paris, McCullough interweaves sketches, small biographies and casual sightings of scores of serious and talented young pilgrims to explicate the seductive and transformative powers of the city. He profiles the “medicals” enrolled at the École de Médecine, a dazzling contrast to the few small medical schools established in the U.S. — among the most prominent, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female American physician, who founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, run by women, and Charles Sumner, whose awareness of the black medical students at the École ignited his passionate crusade for abolition in the 1850’s.

He records the growing presence of American artists in the Paris salons. He follows the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for several hundred pages, from his work as a cameo-cutter to the grand unveiling of his statue of Admiral Farragut in 1881, and then beyond. Some of the most significant figures in “The Greater Journey” are lesser known — the eminent portrait painter George Healy, who had been the only American in the atelier of the great Antoine Gros, or the valiant Elihu Washburn, minister to France between 1869 and 1877, who remained at his post in Paris through the Franco-Prussia War, the long siege of Paris, and the horrors of the Paris Commune. Like Cooper, who was the center of the American circle in Paris in his time, Healy is a unifying thread in the McCullough saga, for he resided in the city for almost 60 years.

There is a vast amount of information stored in “The Greater Journey,” enough for a long and leisurely summer’s read. (McCullough is a researcher’s researcher and in the eddies of the story, he also delivers a wealth of the sort of historical oddments that one pledges to remember: Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a call for historic preservation; Adolphe Saxe, Napoleon III’s official instrument maker, devised le saxophone; the popular song “Home, Sweet Home” was composed by a nostalgic American in Paris in the 1820’s.) At times, the narrative of the book becomes so crowded with compelling characters and ideas that however captivated, the mind grows a little weary and bleary, and even the masterful McCullough has to resort to a certain stocktaking to keep his chronicle moving forward. Yet, that is also a measure of the scope of his undertaking.

In “The Greater Journey,” Paris is a stage, a force, and a muse, ever-splendid, ever-nourishing, and ever-changing. Still medieval in many quarters on Cooper’s arrival, by the end of the century and Saint-Gaudens’s farewell, it had been swept out and reconfigured with Baron Haussmann’s imperial boulevards and Eiffel’s controversial tower. The number of Americans in the city had multiplied dramatically. Thousands would arrive by ocean-liner for the Exposition Universelle of 1900. At home, they had begun to establish institutions such as art museums, schools of architecture, and public libraries.

McCullough’s portrait of Paris is implicitly a portrait of a young America, an important and evocative retrospective on its cultural awakening, and how it grew up. It is also an apt reminder of the historic friendship that binds France and America together, a complicated, generous, sometimes tender, sometimes cranky fraternity of older and younger, a symbiosis that is recalled here in the presence of the honorable and elderly Lafayette, in the indefatigable support and courage of Washburn during his ministry, or the image of the Statue of Liberty rising up in her scaffolding on the rue de Chazelles.

The French have always loved to hear about America’s earlier and wilder days — cowboys and Indians and the dangerous frontier. In the 1840’s, the historical painter George Caitlin brought a delegation of “real” Ojibways and Iowas to Paris to accompany his exhibition of Indian portraits and artifacts, and they danced and drummed and delighted their audiences. Before Caitlin left France, Louis-Philippe commissioned fifteen copies of his work for his gallery at Versailles.

An Evening with David McCullough 8 pm, Wednesday, July 20, Ag Hall, West Tisbury. Pulitzer Prize & National Book Award winner speaks as benefit for West Tisbury Library Foundation, Inc. Doors open 7:15 pm. $35. 508-693-8394; westtisburylibrary.org.

Elizabeth Hawes lives in Chilmark. She is the author of “Camus, a Romance,” a biography of Albert Camus, published in 2009, and “New York, New York, How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930.”