Pulitzer Prize winning biographer David McCullough has created a biography to end all biographies. He has attempted the stupefying feat of tracing the journey, the Greater Journey of the title, of several generations of American art students, medical students, politicians and others from 1830-1900 to Paris, which at that time was the undisputed cultural capital of all the arts and sciences. Or so McCullough maintains in “The Greater Journey.”
The problem with this tremendously readable, lavishly illustrated book, is that it really is too much of a muchness. There are too many biographies attempted in too small a space. a mere 456 pages. But it is a great attempt. And a great story. And in the end a great book. One to treasure and to re-read. Once, in this case, is not enough.
There’s just soooo much to it!
It’s a biography like no other, tracing the seemingly evanescent, but actually earth-shaking impact of one highly developed culture on another completely under-developed one.
But the problem with “The Greater Journey” is that so many biographies are thrown at one so quickly that it takes quite a time to sort out just who is who and what is what, but the one thing that unites them all is their unstoppable need to make this Greater Journey, the journey to Paris. Their thirst, their need for a great gulp of a great culture is unquenchable, and once there, most never leave, or do so reluctantly, and always wish they were back there…
And for certainly most Americans at the time, Paris and indeed France itself was the most enlightened,most enriching place to be. America, still young, did not have the tradition in the arts or in medicine that Paris did and McCullough floats the interesting hypothesis that withOUT these virtually uncountable Parisian trips, by impressionable, but talented young Americans, this country would not have prospered and flourished as it did, during this time and in the century that followed.
And Paris seemed affordable then, believe it or not. And what “The Greater Journey” affords is a marvelously concise entertaining bird’s-eye view of all these cultural astonishments.
In 1900, when the book ends, the Eiffel Tower is built for the Great Paris Exposition of that year, and it’s a fitting symbol and emblem of what all the lives detailed in “The Greater Journey” have been building towards for the whole of the 19th century.
The Statue of Liberty itself is being built and looming large over the Parisian rooftops as the book ends. It seems perfectly fitting that it does so, for McCullough posits, this is symbolic of how French culture has affected Americans.
One forgets that it was a gift from the French.
There are sooo many amazing and untold American stories that McCullough tells for the first time here, that is impossible to list them all.
One sees McCullough in his exhaustive research for his greatest book “John Adams” coming across the many, many American stories of unsung heroes in war and in peace, in science and in art, and McCullough attempts to sing their praises here.
I guess the strongest figure to emerge from “The Greater Journey” for me was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who really is the father of American classical sculpture. His massive figures of Civil War heroes Farragut and Sherman adorning parks that one passes through in NY on a daily basis. These statues are a part of all our lives here, even if we don’t really pay attention to them or notice them. They are part of New York’s cultural landscape, and after reading about Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the compelling, almost breathtakingly urgent way that McCullough writes about his building these behemoths, you’ll never pass them by again.
The construction of the Farragut statue, which resides to this day in Madison Square Park between W.23 and W.26th St at the juncture of Fifth and Madison is given a whole chapter in this crowded book. And it is by far the best.
The red-headed, obsessed son of French shoemaker and an Irish mother, I became very interested in Augustus Saint-Gaudens because of this book and actually watched an excellent PBS documentary on him, whilst I was in the midst of reading it. It enriched my understanding of Saint-Gaudens, and also the audaucity of McCullough’s “Greater Journey” achievement immensely, Both Saint-Gaudens and McCullough are attempting monuments and both succeed magnificently, one complementing the other.
“The Greater Journey” makes you hungry for a more complete picture of those pivotal, historical figures that we only catch glimpses of here.
Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who fled to Paris to escape the acclaim that her incendiary book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” caused. A case can be made that it actually caused the Civil War. No wonder she wanted to escape to Paris.
Henry James, the most formidable American expatriate writer of the time the book deals with(1830-1900) is only dealt with glancingly here. I guess McCullough chose to just mention the most known and dwell on the little-known or forgotten like Saint-Gaudens or the only woman Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.
She and Saint-Gaudens really do stay in one’s mind as the book ends with them, and their passings. Ditto the painter John Singer Sargent, who is the only personage here whom McCullough HINTS might be gay. But he concludes that it is something unknowable. I wish we knew more.
But there are many, many more wonderful American and French characters to be encountered in “The Greater Journey, ” an invaluable and original book for all it attempts to be and for the many Americans who emerge as brand new heroes and heroines in their chosen fields here.
Read it now! And then re-read it! It’s the perfect Christmas gift for all Francophiles! Of which I admit I am one.