A new century brimmed with possibility. In the nineteenth century, many citizens of the United States sought education and culture in the Old World to enhance their knowledge of the New.
Historian David McCullough in The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris examines the lives of many Americans who sailed across the ocean to Paris to spend weeks, months, or years in the cultural capital of Europe. Paris and the French held a fascination for Americans in part for their help during the American Revolution. They also worshiped the Marquis de Lafayette for his leadership as well. Art, music, medicine, and other fields drew Americans to make the voyage for a stay in Paris. The city held another fascination for Americans as it had existed centuries before the discovery of America.
The author provides details of the various Americans during their stay. For those from the new United States, Paris provided the inspiration or education for them to succeed and enrich the cultural life of their country. He places special emphasis on the many American artists who studied in Paris during this time. The Louvre and its famous collection became the main attraction as well as various art schools in Paris. Samuel Morse, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, George Healy, and others all lived, worked, and received inspiration in Paris.
Medical students also sought further education in France. Paris had several specialty hospitals which afforded students greater opportunity to study disease. Olive Wendell Holmes is better known than other doctors who studied in Paris. Two women Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam were among the medical students. Some young doctors gained valuable experience during a cholera epidemic during the 1830s while other provided care during times of crisis and war.
American diplomats left their mark on Paris. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts studied at the Sorbonne and gained new perspectives that later influenced his career. Diplomat Elihu Washburne served the United States during the Franco Prussian war and provided assistance to many to escape during that time. He won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for remaining in Paris while many of his colleagues fled.
Americans in Paris during the nineteenth century enjoyed a front row seat to French history. They witnessed the Franco Prussian War, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, the Commune, and the rise of the Eiffel Tower. Americans attended several world fairs held in Paris and many artists were able to showcase their work. The visitors enjoyed their time in the city, but remained Americans at heart. They may have left American shores, but kept the ideals of home. Paris meant visits and learning, but the United States represented home.
I enjoyed this work not the least for its glimpse of Paris during the nineteenth century. However, I learned more about my fellow Americans that I had never known. I have thought of Samuel Morse of the inventor of the telegraph, but never knew his work as an artist. For an interesting read into many American personalities of the nineteenth century, this is a good place to start.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.