Description

The Greater Journey was written by David McCullough, who has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, The American Spirit, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

[From Simon & Shuster]

 


Review

In The Greater Journey, David McCullough tells the enthralling, inspiring—and until now, untold—story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, and others who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, hungry to learn and to excel in their work. What they achieved would profoundly alter American history.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, whose encounters with black students at the Sorbonne inspired him to become the most powerful voice for abolition in the US Senate. Friends James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Morse not only painting what would be his masterpiece, but also bringing home his momentous idea for the telegraph. Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Paris to escape the controversy generated by her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Three of the greatest American artists ever—sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent—flourished in Paris, inspired by French masters.

Almost forgotten today, the heroic American ambassador Elihu Washburne bravely remained at his post through the Franco-Prussian War, the long Siege of Paris, and the nightmare of the Commune. His vivid diary account of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris is published here for the first time.

Telling their stories with power and intimacy, McCullough brings us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens’ phrase, longed “to soar into the blue.”

[From Amazon books]

 


Study Questions

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1. The Greater Journey opens with a quotation by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens: “For we constantly deal with practical problems…, How does this quotation set the stage for The Greater Journey? What kinds of “practical problems” did Americans in Paris face, and how did they manage to “soar into the blue?”

2. What were some of the challenges travelers faced on the journey from America to Paris?

3. Describing Augustus Saint-Gaudens, McCullough writes, “he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus became accomplished himself.” What were some of the reasons that Americans made the trip to Paris? What did they need to accomplish in Paris, and how did they become accomplished there?

4. Describe the role of women within the community of Americans in Paris.

5. Which of the other travelers within The Greater Journey would you also describe as out-and-out Americans? How did they express their patriotism while they lived overseas?

6. Consider the significance of letters and journals within the book. What kind of information does McCullough draw from historical letters and diaries?

7. In The Greater Journey, we see France in political turmoil—What perspective on politics and violence do they offer? How do their motivations and opinions on war and revolution differ?

8. Oliver Wendell Holmes called medicine “the noblest of arts.” How is medical study portrayed in The Greater Journey?

9. Compare the two painters who dominate the final chapters of The Greater Journey: Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. How were their lives and work similar, and how were they different?

10. How would you classify The Greater Journey—is it the history of a community, the history of a place, or both?

11. If you could tour Paris with any of the historical figures in The Greater Journey, who would it be?

From Lit Lovers

 


Discussion

This is the third month the group of the online book club was unable to meet because of the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. This did not dull the enthusiasm of the readers. Everyone commented that this was an enjoyable book. They were glad that they read it and learned a great deal about people whose names they knew were associated with one activity but who gained fame in another or who were able to gain a new perspective after gaining fame already in America, like Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  

Prime among the surprises in this book was Samuel P Morse. In the book he arrived in Paris with dreams of becoming a great painter with abilities beyond that of a portrait artist. The truth was in the case of Morse he already was a great painter having been commissioned to complete a portrait of Thomas Jefferson among other notables.

Leaving Paris after having made a significant effort at creating a single work that captured the great masterpieces of the Louvre assembled into a single canvas, Morse found the keys to his truly great success during a conversation on the return trip. He developed his idea for wireless communication that developed into the telegraph and the ability to send messages via code invented by Morse.

McCullough’s writing was clear, and the book was a readable pleasure that taught a lot. Comments on the book were all positive and it was rated very highly and a book that all would recommend.

Gene Helveston

 

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