Book Review: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

by David McCullough

What do the invention of the telegraph and the Louvre museum in Paris have in common?

What happened to the American living in Paris during the German invasion of France in 1870-71?

Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris is an epic story of many generations researched and written by David McCullough. The title refers to the great distance Americans had to travel to get to Europe in the early days before luxury cruise ships. Back in the days of wind and sail the journey was still quite dangerous and could take a long time.

McCullough documents the story of Paris through the eyes of visiting Americans between the years 1830, when such a sea voyage was still a risky venture, until 1900, when visiting France became a little more common.

For the book, McCullough has researched the lives writings and even diaries of a number of famous and lesser-known Americans who made the journey across the Atlantic. Including; Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper, (who wrote several of his classic American novels in Paris) Mark Twain, (who was more a fan of Germany) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Chappe’s semaphore signal tower, with moving arms that would send messages by sign language to be relayed by other towers just within eye-sight of each other.

These men and women were not just tourists, they were medical students, writers, artists, politicians and architects. Samuel Morse came to Paris as a painter spending day after day in the Louvre learning from the master by emulating their work, but then was struck with an idea for a new “electronic” communications systems after seeing Frances manually operated signal towers. Chappe’s semaphore signal towers line the hills around Paris. The signal towers were used to manually repeat and pass on messages over great distances.

Morse didn’t know a lot about the new field of electricity but he began to wonder if the huge towers could somehow be automated with the new miracle of science.


Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris (1870–71)

One of the most fascinating characters in the book is Elihu B. Washburne, who served as United States Minister to France, during the Siege of Paris. Washburne had been given the position as Minister to France as a reward after his dedicated and strenuous service during the American Civil War. But then the Franco-Prussian War broke out

Elihu B. Washburne

and unlike most of the other ambassadors from other nations, Washburn decided to stay while the city of Paris was put under siege by the Germans.

The book in many ways really captures the soul of the city. Paris had the ability to inspire great work and political thought. At a time when African Americans were still used as slaves, there were black medical students studying in Paris. The arts were appreciated in Paris as on no place on earth. Sculptors, painters, and writers chose the city as a place to work and study. Some of the Americans mingled with the locals others kept to their own kind.

The results of these early pioneer adventurers’ greater journeys has deeply affected American culture, medical, political and artistic today.


The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris is a 2011 non-fiction book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough. It is the story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900.