Henry James plays a supporting role in Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, which might be said to describe the ‘middle act’ in Americans’ longtime liaison d’amour with Paris.
After Benjamin Franklin’s crucially timed diplomatic mission to France in 1776, and (about 100 years) before the glittering social circle that swirled around Gertrude Stein in the 1920s, Americans with the talent and means, or just the means, made the sea voyage to Paris to soak up the brilliance of the scene and to make “the greater journey,” i.e. to take part in the studios and the surgeries or enjoy less formal inspiration.
McCullough chronicles the overseas adventures of painters John Singer Sargent, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Mary Cassatt; authors James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe; women’s rights activist Emma Willard; and Illinois politician Elihu Washburne, among many others. To get a better idea, read reviews at The Economist, The New Republic and The New York Times, listed from least to most critical (also: least to most sarcastically amusing).
James first made the trip as a very young child when his father, heir to a real estate development fortune, resolved to take his family to Europe and, as he put it, “educate the babes in strange lingoes.” They returned in 1855 when the two eldest, William and Henry, were 14 and 12, respectively. James made the journey alone 20 years later to work on his third novel, The American, which would be serialized in The Atlantic Monthly, then edited by William Dean Howells. And that, dear reader, is how the story begins…