EVER SINCE THE eighteenth century, the French have held a contradictory place in the American imagination. When we need a frivolous, effeminate, weaselly antagonist to highlight our supposed simple and manly virtues, we call on them. Yet when we search for an ideal of refined, worldly sophistication to place above our own more roughhewn tastes, they also fit the bill. How many jingoistic senators have gone hoarse denouncing cheese-eating surrender monkeys, only to soothe their tired throats at the very next congressional recess with a silky Gevrey Chambertin, accompanying a delicately herbed gigot d’agneau, followed by, yes, a delectable slice of Brie au lait cru,at a sumptuously decorated gastronomic temple of the rive droite?
In the history of America’s obsession with France, two periods generally stand out. There is the age of Jefferson and Franklin, two men who played the contrast between aristocratic old world decadence and democratic new world simplicity for all it was worth. And then there is the interwar era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, most recently fetishized in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But the intervening period has received far less attention, despite such literary highlights as Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and Henry James’s The Ambassadors. Yet thousands of Americans crossed the Atlantic every year in the nineteenth century, heading to Paris for business, pleasure, education, and artistic inspiration, and left behind voluminous accounts of their experiences.
These are the experiences that David McCullough sets out to describe in The Greater Journey. He certainly has wonderful material to draw on. Among the Americans who lived in Paris for extended periods was the painter Samuel Morse, who came to the city as a disconsolate widower (leaving his children behind in the care of relatives), and spent long months there preparing his masterpiece, The Gallery of the Louvre. It was in France that Morse took notice of the “telegraph” network of semaphore towers that relayed messages across the country, and became obsessed with the idea of building a more efficient electronic equivalent. He also spent time in Paris with his friend James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels of the frontier delighted French as much as American audiences. (Balzac wrote of Cooper that “in his hands the art of the pen has never come closer to the art of the brush.”)
McCullough gives particular attention to the Illinois politician Elihu Washburne, who kept a vivid journal of events while serving as American ambassador during the Prussian siege and Paris Commune of 1870-1871. And he makes a hero of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of a French shoemaker in New York, who prepared his great sculpture of Admiral Farragut while living in Paris. Many other famous Americans make appearances here (rather like in Woody Allen’s movie): Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary Cassatt, among others. McCullough has nice details on the way that regularly scheduled luxury steamship travel replaced the long, dangerous sailing voyages of the early nineteenth century. By the 1850s, “floating palaces” such as the Arctic and the Pacific included grand dining saloons, gentleman’s smoking rooms, wine cellars with thousands of bottles, and tons of ice for refrigeration.
McCullough’s best chapter tells the little known story of the hundreds of American medical students who came to study in Paris at a time when the French led the world in medical science. In 1833, McCullough notes, Paris’s twelve hospitals treated over 65,000 patients, while Boston’s two saw barely eight hundred. In America, aspiring doctors had trouble gaining access to cadavers for dissection, but in France they could purchase a dead adult body for $2.50, and a child’s corpse came even cheaper. In the main Anatomical Amphitheater of the Paris Medical School, six hundred students could dissect at the same time, with discarded tissue fed to dogs kept in cages outside. The school suspended the exercise in summer, when the stench of decomposing bodies grew too foul even by the malodorous standards of central Paris. (It was in this period, McCullough might have noted, that the city finally emptied out its mephitic communal cemeteries, transferring the bones of millions to the underground Catacombs.)
McCullough, well known as the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams, has a smooth, practiced style and a well-honed eye for the colorful anecdote. To describe the imperious manner of the French surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren, he turns to an account by the medical student Jonathan Warren: “If his orders are not immediately obeyed, he thinks nothing of striking his patient or abusing him most harshly. A very favorite practice of his during his consultation is to make a handle of the noses of his patients. Whenever a man enters with any disease of the head, he is immediately seized by the nose and pulled down onto his knees where he remains half in sorrow and half in anger at the treatment until he is allowed to rise and describe his disease.” To illustrate the conditions of a starving, besieged Paris in the winter of 1870-1871, McCullough cites the Chicago academic and journalist Nathan Sheppard, who noted that cats were selling for four times the price of dogs, and that “the flavor of a brewery rat surpassed that of the sewer rat, due to its diet.” Rat meat, Sheppard recorded, tasted surprisingly like bird.
Most American observations about Paris were admittedly less piquant or surprising, and McCullough includes a few too many of the banal variety. We hear an American medical student praising the “peculiarly exquisite” aroma of French coffee, and Harriet Beecher Stowe gushing over Parisian women’s instinct for stylish dress, and Saint-Gaudens noting, yes, that “Paris in the spring is wonderful.” There are the expected letters about the temptations of Parisian gambling, nightlife, and women, leading to the entirely predictable lament of an art student: “I am entirely out of money.” And lest McCullough’s readers think that all Americans rushed headlong into Parisian fleshpots, he also gives us the educator and women’s rights advocate Emma Willard’s shocked reaction to the naked statues in the Jardin des Tuileries. In “our America,” she wrote home prudishly, “the eye of modesty is not publicly affronted, and virgin delicacy can walk abroad without a blush.” Even when reinforcing clichés about Franco-American interactions, The Greater Journey is perfectly enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the book is also often disappointingly superficial. Particularly in its latter half, Paris becomes little more than a colorful backdrop for a series of amusing but disconnected American stories. The major events in the city’s history—the 1848 revolution, Haussmann’s boulevards, the Franco-Prussian War, the construction of the Eiffel Tower—pass by in familiar textbook fashion. Where an American visitor took particular interest in events, McCullough provides further detail—for instance, in the case of the Commune, witnessed with horror by Ambassador Washburne. But other significant elements of the city’s history go unmentioned, notably the corrosive religious politics of the late nineteenth century and their culmination in the Dreyfus Affair. (It is an interesting question, left unasked here, why visiting Americans apparently turned a blind eye to this subject.) At one point, McCullough casually mentions that in the late 1870s an English-language newspaper for the American community in Paris began publication, but says nothing at all about who published it, or what impact it had.
Few French people receive sustained attention in McCullough’s book, and even then we only see them through the eyes of the Americans. In fact, McCullough has done little serious research on the French setting. His bibliography includes few of the standard scholarly studies of nineteenth-century Paris, and no works at all in the French language. A particular shame is that he appears not to have visited the major research library for the history of Paris, the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, which contains, among its many treasures, a massive catalogue cross-indexing descriptions and travelers’ accounts of the city—the proper first stop for anyone working on a book such as this one.
Yes, the subject of the book is the Americans, but thanks to McCullough’s concentration on their personalities to the neglect of the historical context, there are things about their history that he simply misses. When discussing medical education, for instance, The Greater Journey underscores how the great early nineteenth-century doctor Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis inspired American students: “Louis did nothing for show. He was neither spellbinding nor flamboyant … Yet he had a power. What set him off from the others was his clear-headed approach to the treatment of disease, his insistence on the need for analysis based on evidence, on ‘facts.’” But McCullough neglects to mention the principal reason for Louis’s fame, namely his leadership in introducing then-novel epidemiological approaches to medicine, which for the first time drew on aggregate observations of thousands of patients to determine the most effective treatments. Among other things, Louis used these approaches to discredit the age-old practice of therapeutic bleeding. It was his role in this intellectual revolution, not just his personal magnetism or his hard-headed empiricism, that drew aspiring American doctors across the Atlantic to study with him.
The Greater Journey will undoubtedly sell for summer reading, especially for the masses lamenting the demise of the luxury steamships of 160 years ago as they endure the horrors of contemporary transatlantic travel, en route to the endless admissions queues at the Musée d’Orsay and the T-shirt vendors of the Champs Élysées. The book will entertain them greatly, and do little to disturb their enjoyable preconceptions about the City of Light. American fantasies about France will remain, as ever, highly resistant to empirical evidence. But for a more textured and instructive view of the same subject, today’s traveler might also pick up the Library of America’s lovely volume Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik, in which Cooper and Stowe and Washburne—and Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway, among others—speak for themselves.
David A. Bell is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton, and a contributing editor for The New Republic.