Book Review: David McCullough's The Greater Journey

The great David McCullough has a new book out this week, called The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (and yes, anybody who’s written masterpieces like John Adams and 1776 gets to have the word “great” in front of his name pretty much all of the time). The Boston resident’s latest work follows the paths of several 19th century Americans as they travel to Paris, arguing that the lessons they learned there profoundly influenced America in the decades to come. Examples include Samuel Morse, who found his inspiration for the telegraph in France, and Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who used what he learned training as a young doctor in Paris hospitals to revolutionize the way medicine was taught at Harvard Medical School and, by extension, America. In fact, as we highlighted in this month’s magazine, the book is chockablock with influential Bostonians of yore.

But how is the book on the whole? Well, unfortunately, it’s not John Adams. It’s plenty entertaining at parts and McCullough has an unparalleled knack for ferreting out delightful historical details (there’s a particularly fun story about how Boston painter George Healy, before going to Paris, all but knocked down the door to a local Brahmin’s house, demanding to paint somebody inside), but the book lacks a common narrative thread. There’s no unifying force to pull you through beginning to end, as McCullough hops around from anecdote to anecdote about what feels like a rotating cast of dozens of characters. Many of the characters never met and, frankly, don’t have much to do with each other.

It’s a bit of a strange read, insomuch as I found most of the book interesting, but, because of the lack of a central push, just couldn’t get that into it. Sure, the mini-biography of former Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was fascinating — particularly the part about how he traveled to Paris to recover psychologically from his infamous beating on the US Senate floor — but it was hard to figure exactly why it was in the same book that also detailed both John Singer Sargent’s artistic training and what life was like in the French capital during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune.

The New York Times review was a bit harsh, but more or less gets it right: the book feels like a collection of Paris-based stories that McCullough just liked and wanted to put together. Now, if you’re a history nerd, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Greater Journey does give you an excellent feel for 19th century Paris, and even a useful abridged history of the city.

The recommendation here, then, is that, unless you’re a history buff or serious Francophile, check out McCullough’s other classics first. And if you do buy this one, maybe it’s a good book to take your time with. Because of its scatter-shot nature, the hefty tome is best read not all at once, but in small bites. That way you can soak up all the flavor of McCullough’s Paris without being frustrated by how little the Americans in it have to do with each other.

Anybody else read the book yet? If so, tell me what you think in the comments section below.