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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Saturday, June 9, 2012

McCullough Has Done It Again!

The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisThe Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's McCullough! Don't like history? You haven't read him, then! This one is so many things--a love letter to Paris ( I'm so jealous of his son, Bill, going with him to find all the sites mentioned in the book ), a history of the Western world really. 1830--USA is still a baby--Paris is the center of everything--the best medical training, the best artists under which to study, the best fashion, the best food---and young Americans are converging on it in droves. The names just pour over the reader. Ever been young and a student? Driven to learn, driven to excel, driven to absorb all you can in however short time you have until the money runs out? Here they are--writing home to friends and family--miles away across a dangerous ocean, crossed only by ships under sail that take weeks to arrive if they do. The writing --you see and feel and smell the things these people are experiencing. The overland ride in the huge diligence into a city that is not clean, not rich but oh, so exciting and at its center, so beautiful. The narrative moves through the years as though walking through a great house--here the lighting provided by gas lamps, the streets narrow, the pensions crowded. Bodies of the poor used for dissection in the medical schools, the operations open to the public. Now, the tumult of the ascension of Napoleon III, tearing up the streets to make over a new Paris. Soon the siege by Bismarck, the Communard uprising, artists and doctors returning to America, a new group arriving. The first wave reaching middle age and becoming the famous teachers and practitioners of all sorts of artistic endeavors at home. Eventually, yet another group arrives and the first start to die off, the middle group now the old men and women of their fields. In the beginning, Lafayette is still alive by the end the world is on the brink of a new century--electric lights, automobiles, telephones, the modern age has arrived. The Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, today's landmarks have just been built. The telegraph, once such an all consuming obsession of an artist turned inventor, almost passe. And through it all runs the irresistible lure of Paris.

The book was even more enjoyable for me since I've been to Paris and had a host in Sevres refer to the Eiffel Tower as the Awful Tower--it made the description of the French reaction to its construction quite interesting. So many of the places in the book, I've strolled.How I wish I could return as so many of these men and women did in their life-times but this book brings back the parks and boulevards to memory in great detail.
I grew up in New York and as a child sat on the bench at Farragut's feet more times than I can remember and leaned looking up at Victory so gleaming and high above my small head.
Living in New England the MFA in Boston and the Boston Public Library and Fanuiel Hall are equally familiar as is Aspet in Cornish, NH where I attend summer concerts outside St Gauden's studio.

But, if the reader hasn't been to any of these places McCullough's pen is as descriptive as any of the works of the artists of which he writes. I found myself referring back frequently to the portraits of the these young Americans and the Parisians with whom they came in contact and the places where they spent their time. Also to the pictures of the paintings about which so much is written.

Here is all one could wish, history, art, medicine, emerging America, fascinating Paris with side excursions to other places in Europe--London,Italy, Spain but most importantly the young men and women who were the breathing living students who lived it and through whose letters and diaries and artistic works we live it again.

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