I feel sorry for people who say they don’t like to read. And that pity is particularly pronounced when I find myself in the midst of a book that makes me imagine the world in a whole new light. David McCullough’s latest, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, is one of those. (And, the fact that my copy came to me from Paris—a sweet gift from an American friend who’s lived there for decades—makes it even better.)
The book’s review in the New York Times was titled “How Paris Created America”—and the headline is apt. The Americans who crossed the ocean to the French capital in the mid-19th century were citizens of a very young country. They sought Paris as a place at the zenith—in the arts, in science and medicine, in literature. They studied, they observed, they wrote, they painted—and, like generations of Americans ever since, they were seduced, transfixed and transformed by their time there.
McCullough’s a master historian and storyteller. And I have to believe, he had a marvelous time writing this book. I’m only a third of the way through it, but it’s not a book to read too quickly. I’ve just finished the extraordinary account of Samuel Morse‘s painting, Gallery of the Louvre. An oversized 6 ft. by 9 ft. canvas, it’s Morse’s assemblage of what he judged to be the Louvre’s greatest treasures, hung floor-to-ceiling as was the style in 19th century museums.
Every masterpiece is a tiny replica (and if you look carefully, you’ll even see the enigmatic smile of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait). But, it’s the story of how and why Morse painted Gallery of the Louvre that’s so wonderful, and McCullough excels at this sort of stuff.
Most amazing of all to me? So many reasons these Americans loved Paris 150+ years ago are the same reasons I love it today.