The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris Summary

Extended Summary

Part I

Beginning in the 1830s, American artists, artisans, physicians, and writers seek inspiration and perfection of their craft in France. They become expatriates not out of dissatisfaction with their home country but for insight into what they want their lives to become. These mostly young adults travel to the Old World, leaving their home shores for the first time. There are no trans-ocean steamships or passenger ships at this time, so the travelers take passage on cargo ships and face the danger of sinking, as is all too common. It takes three to six weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Americans spend their time (when not felled by seasickness) reading, chatting, and watching the waves pass. When they land on the French shore at Le Havre, they take a diligence (a large stage coach) for the twenty-four-hour trip to Paris. The Americans are awestruck by the cathedral in Rouen; they feel moved by its sense of holiness. The intense age of the Old World makes them look at America with new eyes. In Europe, everything is settled into an age-old pattern. In America, all things are new and constantly changing.

The American travelers are struck by the filth and poverty on the outskirts of Paris. It is only when they reach the center of the city that they see its glories. The primary occupation for Parisians and tourists both is to simply walk about the city. The Americans enjoy the “Frenchness” of the place about which they have heard so much, but they also appreciate the places where the Founding Fathers lived while working for a treaty with France during the Revolution. Foreigners are welcomed in Paris; the Louvre, for example, is open to native Parisians only on Sunday. University lectures, such as at the Sorbonne, are free of charge. The art, the opera, and the ballet provide new cultural encounters. At times, however, the lower elements of Parisian life are encountered. Prostitutes abound but are seldom mentioned in the diaries and letters back home. Over the course of the beginning weeks of their stay, the American travelers become accustomed to their new way of life.

Samuel Morse and James Fenimore Cooper met in Washington, D.C. In Paris, they become fast friends. Cooper has already established himself in the literary world and is the most famous American writer of his time. Morse, however, is just making a name for himself through his art. He spends his days in the Louvre working on a piece that will be one of his greatest, The Gallery of the Louvre, which includes Cooper and his family. In 1832, a cholera epidemic breaks out. The death toll is high, and most Americans leave Paris, though the disease has spread throughout France. Only the medical students remain to help deal with the massive number of people struck down. By 1833, both Morse and Cooper have concluded their time in Paris and return home.

The American medical students, among whom is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., come to Paris because the medical schools in America are inadequate. The French schools are the best in the Western Hemisphere and are making remarkable advances in the treatment of diseases and illnesses. Clean and well lit, the hospitals rarely seem crowded even with hundreds of patients. The treatment of the patients, however, is rough to the point of violence. Nevertheless, the students’ adoration for their professors is lifelong. The American students are exposed to battle wounds for the first time because of occasional public uprisings. What they learn they take back with them to America, to improve their homeland’s hospitals and medical schools.

Part II

From 1838 to 1845, Paris is the scene of a great many American “sensations.” George Healy, on being commissioned to paint a portrait of King Louis-Philippe, begins a career as an historical artist. He focuses his work on famous Americans such as former President Andrew Jackson. Samuel Morse is disappointed to not receive the opportunity to paint one of the murals in the Capitol Rotunda, and he leaves art for invention. Morse spends much time in Paris...

(The entire section is 1678 words.)