David McCullough's Paris journey took route through city

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A book's origins are often lost in the mists of time, but David McCullough knows exactly where the idea for his latest best-seller, "The Greater Journey," came to him:

Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C.

"I was stopped in traffic at the circle and was looking at the statue of Phil Sheridan (a Union Civil War general)," Mr. McCullough recalled during a visit to town earlier this month.

"Then I wondered how many of thousands of people who pass this statue every day know who Sheridan is. While I was pondering this question, Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' came on the radio and Gershwin's my favorite of all. I was transported by the music."

The juxtaposition of a war hero of the 19th century and one of the last century's leading American composers struck the biographer of U.S. presidents with a jarring question:

"Who's more important -- Sheridan, who nobody knows, or Gershwin who continues to bring pleasure and release today through his music, as if he were still alive?

"The answer is: Both, but you can't leave Gershwin out."

The story took another turn, toward Pittsburgh, of course, since Mr. McCullough is a native, born here in 1933.

"My favorite Gershwin piece is 'An American in Paris,' he said, "and one of our Pittsburgh heroes, Gene Kelly, was in the movie. So, right there, I started thinking about all of those Americans in Paris. And that's a true story."

But, Mr. McCullough wasn't interested in the "usual suspects" kind of book. Following the pack has never been his style. As he explained several years ago, he chooses subjects for his books that have gotten little attention.

"I let things germinate about those Americans. I didn't want to write about Adams, Jefferson and Franklin in Paris because I'd done that," he said.

"Then, I didn't want to write about Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein because that's been done over and over again and frankly, it's gotten trite."

So, Mr. McCullough settled on a period in between, the years 1830 to 1900.

"These are years about which virtually nothing had been done about Americans in Paris. It's never been looked at as a formative time," he said.

Unlike the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s when disillusioned Americans abandoned their country for the freedom of France, the 19th-century crew largely intended to return home to practice what they had learned in Europe's most sophisticated city.

"There was no self-pity or regret in any of these accounts of Americans who went to Paris in the 19th century like there was from 1920s," Mr. McCullough said. "These people were eager to get home to show what they learned and what they can do."

"The Greater Journey" illustrates just how undeveloped a nation America was in those years, the reason its citizens headed to France to find an education in art, architecture, literature and medicine.

"France was so far ahead of the United States that it's hard to imagine today," the author said, "and that's something I wanted readers to know.

"How great was the difference?" he asked. "America had no schools for architects, no art schools, not even any museums where great works of art could be seen," he explained.

"And for medicine, forget it. The medical practice in America was pathetic, it was primitive. There were no schools of medicine. You became a doctor by being taught by another doctor."

Paris, on the other hand, had medical schools. Mary Putnam became the first American woman to earn a medical degree there and returned to the United States to teach.

"I've had a wonderful time with every book I've undertaken," Mr. McCullough said. "I've always felt fortunate in my subjects, but I've never had the time like I had with this book. I really loved doing this book."

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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