Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Greater Journey

MCCULLOUGH, DAVID. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4165-7176-6. Pp. 558. $37.50.

Popular historian David McCullough took on an enormous undertaking when he decided to write a book about Americans in Paris, beginning with the medical students, writers, and painters of the 1830s, all the way through 1901. That's three generations and never mind how many changes in French regime (I lost count, but I think it's somewhere between three and four). That's a lot of ground to cover, enough material with which to write fifty books. Instead, McCullough has no choice but to race through dozens of biographies and three quarters of a century in less than 500 pages (unless you're also reading his source notes, bibliography, and index, in which case it's 558 pages).

As a result, too much becomes too little. The Greater Journey is an excellent introduction to 19th century Paris, but of all the Americans mentioned, only three are given due notice: popular author James Fenimore Cooper; American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, Elihu B. Washburne; and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent figure fairly prominently, but I might just be saying that because I just finished reading about them thirteen minutes ago. Everyone from the beginning of the work are already long-forgotten. Samuel F.B. Morse is easy to remember because he invented the telegraph and was a fanatical nativist.

McCullough is the first author I've had to read for this blog who has received a Pulitzer Prize (actually, make that two Pulitzer Prizes). I'm saying this without actually double checking, but I'm pretty sure I'm right. The Greater Journey is exemplary for the obviously vast amount of research the author undertook in writing it. McCullough relies heavily on primary resources, which becomes especially apparent when the paucity of letters leaves McCullough blindly conjecturing about what "may or may not" have happened, but "doubtlessly" did or did not. I could get a bit impatient when an event would be mentioned solely because there are no sources pertaining to said event.

And while McCullough is a talented popular historian, he has a repetitive writing style that taxes the quality of such a lengthy work. Here is a short paragraph that exemplifies his authorial foibles: "Meanwhile, happily, the work [John Singer Sargent] was engaged in, another ambitious portrait, offered a perfect chance to paint as freely and as much from the heart as he ever had". Notice, first of all, the pointless and awkwardly placed adverb. One doesn't need to be an adamant advocate for Strunk and White's Elements of Style to argue that this one word quickly and needlessly interrupts the rhythm of an already awkward sentence. Secondly, the sentence is again interrupted by the mentioning of the as yet unidentified "ambitious portrait". Given that most of Sargent's works were "ambitious portraits," this could easily have been stricken from the record. Or, McCullough could have specified that Sargent was working on a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Lastly, I cannot stress how many times (200? 250?) McCullough employs "" usually for the effect and little else. ("[A] show many visitors enjoyed as much as anything"; "as beautiful as any bridge in Paris".) I got as exasperated as I'd ever been. Whatever that means. I think it may go hand-in-hand with McCullough's equally overabundant use of superlatives. So, if we were to go back and rewrite the sentence above mentioned, it should go something like this: "Meanwhile, the work Sargent was engaged in, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, offered a perfect chance to paint freely and from the heart". Or, even better. "Meanwhile, Sargent was painting Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth". Or, even better, strike the whole thing. An entire page will be devoted to this painting anyway.

Still, The Greater Journey is an excellent and interesting and different approach to the amateur's study of Paris during an undeniably tumultuous century. It's a bit of a slog, but McCullough has an expert eye for interesting anecdotes and writes with outright joy and genuine admiration for all of his plentiful subjects.

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