THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

City of light

History of the 19th-century Americans who made pilgrimages to Paris proves captivating but lacks a central focus

(Anne Latini/ Globe Staff)
By Rebecca Steinitz
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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In the beloved 1951 musical, “An American in Paris,’’ struggling artist Gene Kelly lives in a garret, sips café, haunts boulevards and boîtes, falls in love with a French girl, and paints his way across the city. Aside from the song and dance numbers on the banks of the Seine, Kelly could easily appear in David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris’’ — except that McCullough is writing about the 19th century, and his Americans were real people, many of whom went on to great prominence at home and abroad.

“The Greater Journey’’ begins in the 1830s when “the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans’’ set out for Paris and “the dream of a lifetime.’’ Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Sumner, who would become, respectively, a renowned physician-poet and a powerful antislavery senator, were headed to medical school. Emma Willard, founder of the eponymous New York girls school, was traveling for her health and to better educate her students. James Fenimore Cooper wanted to write, and Samuel Morse and George Healy wanted to paint. When asked why he was going to Paris, Morse said, “My education as a painter is incomplete without it,’’ and that seems to have been the general feeling, whether the edifying object was medicine, art, or simply Paris.

As the book and century progress, these initial travelers are followed by diverse others: well-known figures like P.T. Barnum, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt; figures who should be better known, like Elihu Washburne, US minister to France during the 1870s, and George Catlin, painter and proprietor of the Indian Gallery; and dozens of people your average reader has never heard of and will never hear of again. Samuel Morse invents the telegraph; republics and empires rise and fall; Haussmann rebuilds Paris; Eiffel builds his tower; sculptures are sculpted; paintings are painted; and, throughout it all, the Americans come and go.

Paris is as predictable as it is delightful. Like Gene Kelly and today’s tourists, McCullough’s 19th-century travelers marvel at the splendors of Parisian cathedrals and the pleasures of the city’s parks, the tastes of its meals, and the vast scope of its art. But if McCullough traffics in familiar sentiments, informing us, for instance, that “the transcending appeal of Paris, the spell of Paris, derived from light, color, and architecture,’’ he also deploys his paramount storytelling skills (which have garnered him a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and countless weeks on best-seller lists) to create a thoroughly engaging historical montage.

Sometimes the stories are brief: a page here on the 1855 Paris Exposition, a page there on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s weeklong (and apparently uneventful) 1858 visit. But the book is at its best when it homes in at length on a single subject, whether it is a comprehensive and evocative description of Paris in the 1830s, or a surprisingly suspenseful account of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s creation of the statue of Civil War hero Admiral Farragut, which still stands in New York’s Madison Square Park.

Another captivating story, which takes up two full chapters in the middle, recounts the dramatic events of 1870 and 1871, from the Siege of Paris through the rise and fall of the Paris Commune. The ostensible focus of these chapters is Washburne, who not only appears to have been a dedicated and effective diplomat, but who also kept a remarkable diary, the full extent of which McCullough pieced together from excerpts and original entries in multiple archives (evidence that his historical prowess rests on prodigious research skills along with narrative ability). But if this story is gripping and well-told, it is ultimately more about Paris than Americans, and it thus raises the question of whether any greater principle holds “The Greater Journey’’ together.

Sometimes McCullough provides pre- and post-Paris biographies of his subjects; sometimes he abandons them when they abandon Paris. At the beginning of the book, he appears to focus on Paris as a transformative educational experience; later, for example in the Washburne chapters and his accounts of how Sargent and Cassatt evolved as artists, he seems more interested in long-term professional accomplishment. At times, Americans seem to recede altogether, as in his description of the construction of the Eiffel Tower, where the few American references seem like excuses for including the story in the book. And if his aim is simply to provide a panorama of the American experience, why so many artists and so few businessmen, tourists, and lowlifes?

The depth and breadth of McCullough’s research and the exuberance of his storytelling make “The Greater Journey’’ a pleasure, but also a frustration. Despite its plethora of interesting information and stories, the book never offers a definitive explanation for why Paris was such a signal destination for 19th-century Americans (why not Rome or London?), nor does it draw any conclusions about how Paris influenced the still-youthful nation across the pond. Perhaps McCullough isn’t interested in these larger questions, but his book maddeningly invites their answers.

Rebecca Steinitz, a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, can be reached at rsteinitz@gmail.com.

THE GREATER JOURNEY: Americans in Paris
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 558 pp., illustrated, $37.50