David McCullough is America's greatest pop historian. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize (TRUMAN and JOHN ADAMS) and was the recipient of two National Book Awards (THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS and MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK). These and his other broad histories have been honored with the National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
McCullough is fantastic at weaving the stories together, finding relationships between these Americans that may not have happened had they stayed in the U.S. only to work.
Now McCullough looks to America's journey to France, a committed artistic pilgrimage by American artists and intellectuals, enjoying the same wonders and inspiring wisdom that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed so many years earlier. He lends his usual high-spirited but easy-to-follow writing style to this compendium of all the great things that this journey helped so many iconic American artists discover --- about themselves, their country and the world.
McCullough gives us some fine stories. The best, by far, is the wonderfully collaborative and encouraging friendship between novelist James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse. They both worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, giving each other the inspirational steam to create great works. Morse even returned to the U.S. with the germ of an idea for the telegraph. Medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes kept a long stream of letters running between himself and his loved ones in the U.S., in which he told of how much he enjoyed being "at the center of things." At the time, France was the most influential country in the world when it came to all things medical. Holmes's experiences there benefited American medical patients for a long time to come.
American writers began to look to France for inspiration, too. Before the days of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, American novelists and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James and Harriet Beecher Stowe were finding a refuge from the craziness of American society in France. They soaked up the culture and started to incorporate these experiences into their work. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent all came to France to study, copy and learn from the works of great French artists who had come before. The culture of France, its art, food and general attitude about the world were transforming to these open-minded Americans, and its creativity and inspiration were sent home in new works that changed the face of the American community as well.
THE GREATER JOURNEY is a huge story. But it feels like a novel, in that you follow the trials and tribulations of so many beloved American personalities, watching as they find their way around situations to engage with this new culture, to be educated in it, and then as they aspire to take those lessons and turn them into art and culture in America. McCullough is fantastic at weaving the stories together, finding relationships between these Americans that may not have happened had they stayed in the U.S. only to work. It's an adventure story, about the search for an artistic and intellectual paradise, and it reads fast and furiously. You won't be able to put it down, not even at the beach!
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on June 27, 2011