One of my sisters went to Paris for the first time a few years ago. After she got back, I was talking to my mother, and she commented on how much my sister had liked Paris. My response was something like, "Of course she liked Paris, why wouldn't she like Paris? She'd have to be seriously perverse or plain stupid."
Now I'm sure, of course, there are significant numbers of perfectly reasonable people who go to Paris and don't like it. However, even more--many more--have been captivated by it. In The Greater Journey, David Halberstam tells about one such group, the wave of 19th century Americans who traveled to Paris to study, live, or just pick up some Old World polish.
Halberstam begins with the true young Americans--those born in the early 19th century as the first generation of Americans born solidly in the United States who traveled to France on unpredictable, weeks long journeys on nausea-inducing sailing ships and ends with a more confident brand of Americans, those who were part of a world where the US was an emerging power, and France, for all its beauty, had been trounced by the Prussians and left weaker and anxious than its bold American visitors. The cast of characters includes James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt.
This is a book where the parts are greater than the whole. That's not necessarily bad--there are many interesting sections and people. I was fascinated by the part about the lives of the young Americans who came to study medicine in Paris because it offered the world's best and most comprehensive training (in Paris, medical students studied obstetrics, which they were not allowed to do in the prudish US). There are details about their daily lives, how early they got up, the tiny, cold rooms where they lived, and the rival methods of instruction they found in their Parisian teachers. Honestly, I could have read a whole book on that topic alone (note to self: look for book about 19th century medical education). Since I am infuriated by reading anything where Samuel Morse's contribution to the "invention" of the telegraph is regarded uncritically, I did not love reading the part about Morse and his friendship with James Fenimore Cooper, that most American of authors who spent a lot of time in Paris. The part about the Siege of Paris by the Prussians and the worse takeover of the Paris commune, as relayed through the carefully kept diaries and letters of American diplomat Elihu Washburne (note to self: another person to learn more about) was riveting. I wanted to know more about John Singer Sargent--after reading "The Greater Journey," I chased down a book solely about the artist; perhaps it will tell me more than the ever polite Mr. Halberstam, who delicately refrains from commentary, guesswork or gossip about his subjects' lives, particularly their love lives. A lot of time is devoted to the life and career of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, which didn't do much for me. I found myself wondering whether my lack of patience had more to do with the fact that maybe I'm just from a generation that has too little appreciation of the sculptors of old who were renowned for their casting of giant bronze statues of war heroes, or from a faint suspicion that Saint-Gaudens got all those pages because there was a lot of material available about him.
I enjoyed this book, but was left feeling somewhat less than satisfied. I wondered if it was a book about famous 19th century Americans--maybe. Or maybe it was about the history of Paris during the 19th century--yes, it was that, too. Or maybe it was French history as seen through the eyes of Americans. Could be. At any given time, it's one of these, which is fine, but sometimes I wished it was securely just one; it felt a little fragmented or lacking in drive. There also was that "survey of history" introductory feel about it that you get when a book is trying to hit a lot of topics, or people, but doesn't really go in depth about anything. That's good, because it inspires readers like me to run out and try to find a book about the subjects that interest me, but it also leaves readers like me feeling like I was watching one of those history for beginners documentaries on the History Channel. Overall, I recommend the book--it has its ups and downs, but you'll learn a little something and in the end you'll find yourself wanting more. Just like a trip to Paris.