The Greater Journey
Americans in Paris
Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 558 pp.
On screen and in print, Paris is much in vogue these days. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s ode to the City of Light in the 1920s, is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris spent months on bestseller lists. If we’re lucky, McCullough’s hefty history spanning the 1830s through the 1890s will become a television miniseries, narrated of course by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author himself.
When we think of American luminaries in Paris, most of us conjure those who worked and played so memorably there in the 1920s, often with nary a thought for those who went before. The hero of Woody Allen’s film is a contemporary writer giddily transported back to 1920s Paris, where he falls for a woman longing to live in the Paris of the belle époque, which McCullough touches on. But the greater part of The Greater Journey takes place in the decades before that, and McCullough’s stories, unlike Allen’s, are never romantic for long.
A vivid description of the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War—for example, during which thousands died of starvation and major culinary decisions boiled down to “Cat or rat?”—reminds us that even this city’s creative muse was periodically driven to desperation.