Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Greater Journey

Tuileries Boat Man, 2002

I’ve just started reading David McCullough’s latest book, The Greater Journey, about the parade of American writers, artists, scientists and educators who followed in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and took their chances on the high seas to journey to Paris in the 1820s and 1830s. What they saw, learned and brought home with them resulted in changes in American culture, science and medicine that are still alive today.
I’ve always admired McCullough’s books. He’s probably best known for John Adams, but it was his books about the building of the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge that first caught my eye many years ago. McCullough’s style is very welcoming to people like me who had a hard time in school making sense of the linear recitation of years and wars. If you’ve ever seen  or heard McCullough interviewed or seen the HBO documentary about him, you’ll know that he’s not only a gifted writer and historian, but also a charming and funny person you’d like to have as a friend.
It’s hard for us today to imagine just how arduous the voyage to England and France was at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Two-masted sailing ships were still the norm. Cargo was the priority and passengers were an afterthought. An even routine crossing of the Atlantic Ocean could take five or six weeks. Bad weather and high sea could add weeks more. More than a few people commented that the difficulty of getting there had made the wisdom of spending the rest of their life in Paris look awfully smart.
It’s also hard for us to imagine just how awestruck those first American visitors from their still young country must have been when they first got to Rouen, the midway point between the port of La Havre and Paris, where the foundation of the city’s mighty Gothic cathedral had been laid centuries before the Western Hemisphere was even known to Europeans.
It appears that McCullough will be telling this story through the eyes of a half dozen or so well known individuals in American history, including James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Emma Willard and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I’ve only reached Chapter Two, where our hearty bunch is just beginning to arrive in and explore Paris.  But already they are dazzled by the complete differentness of French culture, by the commitment of Parisians to grand public parks and spaces and to the desire of even the common folk to have regular access to good food, art and opera. As to the food, Philadelphia educator John Sanderson observed, “The French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite. We demolish dinner, they eat it.”

Writes McCullough:
The glories of the art of architecture, of the arts on all sides, in and out of doors, the conviction of the French that the arts were indispensable to the enjoyment and meaning of life, affected the Americans more than anything else about Paris, and led many to conclude that their own country had a long way to go.
The Americans of the 1820s had no great cities yet. Pierre L’Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. was still being staked out. The first U.S. Capitol building, though, was the tallest building in the nation. When they visited Paris, the Americans could not get over the benefit of the city’s parks.
 Face Off, 2006

When I went to Paris for the first time, I had a much better idea of what I was getting into. I’d had the benefit of books, art history classes, still photographs, slides, American in Paris and Pink Panther movies, and six years of high school and college French. But the differentness of Paris still came through, just as any foreign place does if you’ve spent your whole life up to that point in a geographic or cultural bubble. The parks of Paris quickly won me over, especially the Tuileries Garden.
Paris has many beautiful public gardens. Some people swear by the Place des Vosges or the Luxembourg Garden. But my loyalty stays with the Tuileries. Like the others, it’s extremely formal in layout, but includes several areas where the visitor can linger for minutes or hours without feeling boxed in.
The early 19th Century American visitors to Paris were also impressed by the city’s dedication to art in public places. This value is still shared in modern Paris, where in the Tuileries Garden, for example, statues from the Eighteenth Century share space with art from the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.
A feast for the mind and the senses today as it was two hundred years ago.
 Opposing Points of View, 2006


  1. Paris is still different, but with each passing day there is more same-ness (Chipotle is on its way!). Last time I was in NYC, I was struck by all the cafés trying to look French, particularly with their choice in chairs. Ironically, I find many restaurants in Paris trying to go NYC. Maybe down the line the 2 cities will change places...

  2. I love the photos you captured here: they're wonderful! Bring back lots of memories. Paris is such an elegant city. Driving through France gave me wanderlust for life.

  3. I am further along in the book than you. The chapters on Washburn's experience in Paris in the 1870's were fascinating.

  4. I'm now eager to read the book, thanks to you. My favorite Parisian park, though, is Luxembourg Gardens. There are so many small parks within the great park and subtle, intimate mysteries within each of hem.