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Threads Across the Ocean

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12.01.11

The Greater Journey

Appearing on nearly every list of the best books of 2011 is David McCullough’s The Greater Journey.

We think of the story of America as the story of a westward journey, but McCullough has gathered an impressive array of Americans who travelled eastward to conquer their frontiers. Between 1830 and 1900, a constant stream of talented American painters, sculptors, physicians, musicians, lawyers, and writers braved the seas to complete their education in Paris, the City of Light, and expand their cultural horizons. For many, the exposure to the fine arts, old-world architecture, fashion, fine dining, museums and teaching hospitals proved transformative and had a corresponding impact on American life and thought.

Among the adventurers who flocked to Paris were Oliver Wendell Holmes (physician and father of the Supreme Court Justice), James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F. B. Morse, George P. A. Healy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. After an eye-opening experience with fellow black students in Paris, Charles Sumner became the U. S. Senate’s foremost voice against slavery.

A few women were courageous enough to strike out for Paris, including Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary Cassatt, famed for her portraits of mothers and daughters.

Gifted storyteller that he is, McCullough draws us in to the lives of each of these talented Americans and shows us not only how they travelled to Paris, but also how they mastered their crafts and, in most cases, brought back to America a renewed energy for production, teaching, and sharing with others. Their greater journey was one of artistic and intellectual development that benefited America and the world.

McCullough tells story after story of Americans in Paris against a colorful and dramatic backdrop of French history from the revolution of 1848 to the Paris Exposition of 1889. Perhaps the most moving section is the account of Elihu Washburne, the only diplomat brave enough to remain in Paris through the bloody 1870s, the time of the Paris Commune, more terrible than the French Revolution. Washburne sheltered and fed many starving people, and found safe passage out of the city for Americans and others who could escape.

 

A Thread Across the Ocean

Samuel F. B. Morse was a painter of renown long before he became interested in telegraphy and developed the system of dots and dashes for which he is remembered today. McCullough’s account of his painting "The Gallery of the Louvre" is most unusual—he was allowed to set up scaffolding for months so he could copy museum paintings for his own painting. Morse also appears in John Steele Gordon’s A Thread Across the Ocean, about the laying of the transatlantic cable in the mid-19th century. Morse was, however, only one of many who promoted this enterprise to hasten the transmission of news between Europe and America.

In this age of instant communication, it is hard to imagine that news travelled only as fast as a sailing ship. Faster transmission would enhance business, finance, and political response to world events. Cyrus Field, a New York businessman, took on the role of promoter and organizer of a truly heroic engineering feat, probably the most significant of the 19th century. Field told one prospective investor, a beagle breeder, to imagine a huge dog stretching from England to the U.S. The venture was "just such a dog. If you pinch his tail in Liverpool, he’ll bark in New York."  Gordon captivates with his portrayal of the five attempts over twelve years spanning the Civil War, involving the best scientific minds and millions of dollars from both sides of the Atlantic, to lay the cable between Ireland and Newfoundland.

 

Devil in the White City

The Paris Exposition of 1889 and the daring Eiffel Tower, described in The Greater Journey, captured the world’s imagination and admiration like nothing else had, and inspired American architects and engineers to their best efforts to "out-Eiffel the Eiffel". Chicago won the bid to host the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America, and the push was on to show the world what American ingenuity could finally do.

Devil in the White City is Erik Larson’s exciting story of the Chicago World’s Fair and how it came together, in spite of incredible odds that it would fail, thanks in large measure to the untiring work of architect Daniel Burnham. And, as if the creation of the Fair were not enough, interwoven in its tale is the story of a psychopath operating on the edge of the Fair and of the many victims who came under his spell. This mix of magic and true crime will keep you on the edge of your seat.

When you have finished this book, check out the entry for the Fair at wikipedia.org and see the photographs in the article and several of the online references cited at the end. Do you recognize the likely source of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in these lovely images?

 

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