In February 1825, a young graduate of Harvard College named Ralph Waldo Emerson paid a visit to the 89-year-old former president John Adams at his home in Quincy, Mass. Sitting erect in a large stuffed armchair, Adams spoke with Emerson in his room for about an hour. The subject was the tenor of the times, which the aging statesman found wanting in one crucial respect: “I would to God there were more ambition in the country,” he exclaimed, specifying, “ambition of that laudable kind, to excel.”
Excellence, then as now, was an elusive quality; each generation had to earn it. And it was in pursuit of excellence that the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a year later, arrived with his family in Paris, where his new bestseller, The Last of the Mohicans, had made him the most famous American since Benjamin Franklin. Enchanted by Cooper’s writing, the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the Revolutionary War, feted M. Cooper Américain at his mansion on the rue d’Anjou. A few years later, he presented Cooper to King Louis-Philippe, who welcomed the rustic luminary warmly. “The people seem to think it marvelous that an American can write,” Cooper observed. Yet for all the “tinsel” with which the Frenchmen decorated his name, Cooper considered it “a point of honor to continue rigidly as an American author,” he told his British publisher.
He was one of hundreds of Americans — artists, writers, medical students — who went to a culturally dominant Paris in the 19th century not to adopt the city as their own, but to learn from it. Paris was the model on which they would build America into a great nation. Their motivation was Adams’s virtue: ambition to excel. And their story is the subject of Pulitzer Prize–winning author David McCullough’s new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
In the 1830s, Americans’ educational opportunities were scarce, especially in the arts and medical sciences. There were only 21 medical schools — less than one for each state — with faculties of five or six professors each; and those professors’ expertise was dubious at best.
The artistic milieu was similarly barren. Writer John Sanderson admitted in 1835 that “we have nothing yet to show in the way of great works of art.” The country’s tallest building, the Capitol, was 300 feet shorter than the Rouen Cathedral, which, teacher Emma Willard gushed, possessed an “inexpressible magic” — one unknown in her country.
But there were young Americans who “were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream,” McCullough recounts. They came from “nearly all of the twenty-four states that [in the early 1830s] constituted their country.” And they wished to study in Paris to win laurels not only for themselves, but also for their country. “My country has the most prominent place in my thoughts. How shall I raise her name?” Samuel F. B. Morse asked.
Despite the size of the cast of characters that McCullough enrolls, he develops each one fully, and he uses the succession of these vignettes to illustrate the cultural rise of the United States. To highlight the significance of these changes, he focuses on some of America’s most prominent citizens: Hawthorne, Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe. He also introduces us to some American heroes whom history has largely forgotten, most notably Elihu Washburne, the American ambassador to France and the only foreign diplomat to remain at his post during the heady days of the Paris Commune.
One of McCullough’s most impressive sub-narratives concerns the close friends Cooper and Morse. Although history remembers Morse as inventor of the telegraph, he began his career in Paris as an artist. “I was made for a painter,” he told his parents. After settling in the city, he decided his magnum opus would be a “giant interior view of the Louvre” on a canvas measuring six by nine feet. This feat would require Morse to render likenesses of 38 world-famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Every day, Morse worked on his painting, and every day, his friend Cooper came to cheer him on. The painter returned the writer’s devotion. When Cooper received bad reviews for his work Notions of the Americans — an attempt to correct misconceptions about his country — Morse took to the pages of the New York Observer to defend his compatriot. (Cooper’s European critics disliked him because he refused to bow to their pretensions, Morse argued: “I admire exceedingly his proud assertion of the rank of an American . . . for I know no reason why an American should not take rank, and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made.”) The bond between the two men solidified when they braved a cholera epidemic in 1832. While hundreds were dying around them, Cooper and Morse stuck to their work, and stayed in the city until the plague had passed.
McCullough doesn’t hide his characters’ faults: Morse’s nativist politics, Cooper’s stilted writing (the subject of one of Twain’s most lacerating essays). Some of their failures were spectacular: When Morse finished The Gallery of the Louvre in 1833, he displayed it to the public, which showed little interest, and he was forced to sell it for $1,300 (he had initially wanted $2,500). It does help, however, to take the long view: In 1982, The Gallery of the Louvre was sold for $3.25 million, at that time the largest sum ever paid for an American work.
A much bloodier form of progress, meanwhile, occurred across the Seine at the École de Médecine, where students Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Jackson learned from the city’s medical giants. At 6 a.m. every day, by candlelight, they — with two or three hundred of their colleagues — began their rounds of the Hôtel Dieu. Their elbows raised, they pushed their way to the front of the crowd to hear the instructor, Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, inspect the patients. The fact that the lessons were conducted entirely in French — and that neither of them spoke the language before they arrived — didn’t discourage them. Nor, McCullough adds, did the screams of the patients — operated on without anesthetics — unnerve them.
These Americans’ efforts paid off. When Holmes returned to the city as an old man, there were fewer American students than there had been in his day. “Due in good part to what he and others had brought back from Paris, medical education in the United States had so greatly advanced that study in Paris was not necessarily an advantage any longer,” McCullough writes.
But McCullough saves the place of honor, the grand finale, for Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The preeminent American sculptor of the late 19th century, Saint-Gaudens was known for his Civil War monuments, and in the 1890s, New York City commissioned him to cast an equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman for the entrance of Central Park at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.
Although he had dedicated his life to preserving the memory of American war heroes, Saint-Gaudens found “the infernal noise, dirt, and confusion” of his native land inhibiting to his talents. So he took his wife and shop to Paris. There, he tortured himself with his work. He obsessed over Sherman’s cloak, recasting it several times. For his effort, he would later receive the Grand Prize from the French government, and his countrymen’s gratitude. Yet for Saint-Gaudens, Paris took on an even greater significance.
Just as his artistic success reached its apex, his health collapsed. His wife left for the U.S., depriving him of his emotional ballast, and a tumor conquered his lower intestine. One day, he succumbed to depression and “decided that I would end it all.” He ran to the Seine, mounted a bridge, and was about to end his life when “I saw the Louvre in the bright sunlight and suddenly everything was beautiful to me.” He believed, concludes McCullough, that it was Paris itself that had saved him.
At that moment, Saint-Gaudens realized Paris’s true power, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had described several decades earlier: “One in whom this [sense of beauty] had long been repressed, in coming into Paris, feels a rustling and a waking within him, as if the soul were crying to unfold her wings.” A fuller sense of beauty was Paris’s gift to these young people, a gift they bequeathed to future generations of Americans.
Through all of these stories, McCullough reminds us that these Americans didn’t love their country merely because it was their own, but because it was lovely — and they wished to add to its beauty. By rescuing their stories from oblivion and telling them in his luminous prose, he adds to the luster of history, a field in which, these days, a sense of beauty is sorely lacking. McCullough succeeds because he sees the greater significance of his work, and the care with which he writes reveals that greater purpose. He tells these stories so as to inspire the current generation of Americans to the pursuit of excellence: a virtue McCullough’s work both encourages and exemplifies.