Yesterday I finished reading “The Greater Journey, American’s in Paris” by Pittsburgh’s own David McCullough. It was a fun and somewhat entertaining read about how experiences in the seat of cultural Europe - the city of Paris - influenced and shaped some of the greatest American minds of the 1800s which in turn shaped the development of America. At the time of this writing it is number five on the New York Times best seller list.
I enjoyed the book mainly because I want badly to get to Paris someday, and I liked reading Mr. McCullough’s descriptions of some great American artists, some of which I knew very little about. It was not as great as his other books I’ve read however, and I didn’t quite understand why until I read the “Books of the Times” review by Janet Maslin. The premise of the book is a bit flimsy. The period covered is from late 1820s to 1900 and many Americans from various backgrounds went to Paris and different parts of Europe which became a life changing experience for them.
But I agree (sadly) with Ms. Maslin when she writes: “...Mr. McCullough is hard-pressed to sustain the idea of a unified “them” (meaning various Americans in Paris) at the heart of his book. So he is forced to make awkward juxtapositions and segues among people who did not cross the Atlantic at the same time..., did not live a shared narrative and did not share all that much common ground. He ends up delivering the kinds of space-filling observations that might not even pass muster in a high-school history paper. This is not the side of Mr. McCullough that has made him a national treasure.” Ouch!
The vignettes of the peoples lives (especially the artists) were very entertaining though, and the time period covered gives some very interesting glimpses of how European’s viewed historical American turning points of the 1800s such as the civil war.
Bottom line, I like David McCullough, so I say buy the book. When you’re done, if you don’t want it, take it to your local Half-Price Books and trade it in for “John Adams” or “1776” by the same author, or perhaps a biography of John Singer Sargent. Had I not received a signed copy I’d probably do the same with this one.
You read it and let me know what you think.