Ever since I picked up John Adams, I have been an avid fan of David McCullough. His biography of Harry Truman is perhaps the best one I’ve ever read. McCullough has a knack for taking people or things that perhaps have escaped the popular limelight (such as the Panama Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge) and writes a completely captivating history of them. You do not simply read a McCullough book, you experience it.
When I first heard that McCullough was penning a new work focusing on the impact that Parisian life had on Americans of the 19th century, I was quite excited to say the least. And when I was offered the chance to do a pre-release review of The Greater Journey, I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity. McCullough did not disappoint.
The Greater Journey varies in focus from his other works. While the majority of his previous books have focused on political and engineering aspects of American history, The Greater Journey instead highlights many of the artistic influences of American history (Adams, Jefferson and Franklin get barely a mention). Although working with a large cast of characters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Cassatt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Harriet Beecher Stowe, McCullough spotlights a few in more detail. Although Samuel F. B. Morse is more widely known for inventing the telegraph, McCullough spends more time discussing Morse’s artistic work in the Louvre. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of such memorials as the Farragut, Sherman and Robert Gould Shaw Memorials, was greatly influenced by his time in Paris. Of particular interest to me was the account of Elihu Washburne’s efforts during the Franco-Prussian War to protect French, American and German citizens. With each of these and others, McCullough writes of how their time in Paris influenced their artistic abilities or, as was the case with Charles Sumner, their political/humanitarian views.
When I first heard of the subject matter of the book, I wasn’t sure it would be as interesting as McCullough’s other works that dealt with more sweeping changes such as 1776. But while watching an interview of McCullough about the book, he made a statement that convinced me otherwise. He said “History is much more than just politics and generals. History is about life. History is human. And music, art, literature, poetry, theatre, science, the whole realm of the human spirit is all part of history.”
As captivating and readable as his other books, The Greater Journey offers a unique glimpse of the more cultural side of American history and the huge role Paris life played in shaping this culture. (5/5 stars)