Although this is not a new book, it was first published in early 2011, so it is one of David McCullough's most recent. He writes another biographical historical nonfiction with a cast of many characters. Starting in the 1830's, much of his focus is on famous artists that migrated from the United States for both long and short terms.
Many physicians studied art and became famous portrait and sculpture artists. They also simultaneously studied medicine which was the most prestigious place to study during that time. Samuel B.F. Morse who invented the telegraph, was in Paris as were other inventors.
There are three parts to the book, “The Greater Journey” and one of them focuses on the exodus of Americans to France in search of scholarly education. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician was known to have studied in Paris. Oliver Wendell Holmes also spent many years in Paris, and McCullough dedicates a good deal of the story to physicians studying with details of the activities at the medical universities including the dissection school for surgeons. The rough bedside manner that the French doctors had a reputation for, not to mention the meager amount of money that one had to pay to procure a cadaver made Parisian doctors seem much more desensitized than American doctors to their patients.
One locale backdrop was the Palais Royal exemplifying the extravagance of France. King Louis Phillip was in charge and there was trouble with the Communard, which were not Communists, but striving for more representation by the people. He writes of Tocqueville and other politicians. Of course one cannot forget that Thomas Jefferson was the US Ambassador to France. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were also founding fathers that were influenced by their travels to France before the 1800’s.
There was a horrible cholera outbreak in the 1830’s when many Americans were in Paris, and the descriptions of the streets with wagons filled with the bodies of dead are chilling and show that all was not promenades after cafe au lait's and croissants for them. Despite the grandeur of the Palais Royal and the artistic treasures at the Louvre, the young medical students and artists from America saw political unrest and social norms while liberal and glamorous, also daringly unnerving. They often took refuge in the theater and opera which was more opulent than anything they had seen in America.
For those who are not exactly fluent in French, but having a working knowledge of the language, McCullough does not disappoint with a smattering of French cliches interspersed with the daily life descriptions of so many great American visitors from the time. France was anything but Victorian, as was her close cousin during the time. The genteel nature of the French along with their pride and snobbery toward the Americans is only a benign characteristic, and the Americans were certainly a minority among people of other countries visiting France. The French insist on their visitors speaking their language, and do not indulge any other language, no matter how grand the visitors may think their home country is.
American authors of the the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were all people that spent a good amount of their adult lives in Paris, especially Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador to France. They kept detailed accounts of their time there as did their traveling successors in the 1800’s. McCullough cites numerous collections and historical manuscripts that he accessed for his research for this book. James Adams, a historical archivist and who was 100 years after his grandfather John Adams, tells a story that is instrumental in the making of the new republic. James Adams, along with many other scholars attending both Yale and Harvard spent time writing about their individual sojourns.
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