WMBC Discussion Questions


All page numbers relate to iPad (Kindle) digital version.

1)        David McCullough writes in Ch 1, pg. 3 “They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream – though to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of ‘a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.’” 
And then McCullough ends CH 1 with the title’s inclusion: “Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun, as they already sensed, and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and to their country than they yet knew.
These two quotes are the focal point of this entire novel, don’t you agree?  Did you find that McCullough follows through well enough for you in exacting this viewpoint?  Where does he stray or strain, if at all? 

2)        There are so many people mentioned in this book, did you find them difficult to follow?  However, by the time you get to the epilogue, he epitomizes only three American people: Augustus Saint-Gaudens who spent his final years at his estate in Maine, John Singer Sargent who passed away at his London home and Mary Cassett who died at her chateau in northern Paris.

3)        Ch 1, PG 20 – John Sanderson has a conversation with a Frenchman regarding passports (unlike in Europe, no American needs to carry one while in the US).  Did you catch the significance of this?  It is the 1800’s and still today that is true for our citizens! 

PG 24 -- Giovanni Antonio Galignani, an Italian newspaper publisher, first published GALIGNANI’S NEW PARIS GUIDE in 1814.   At his death, it was continued by his two sons and then discontinued in 1904. 

4)        Pg. 30 – “…to walk  - flaner, as the French said-was practically a way of life.”   Have you ever been to Paris?  And did you walk, walk, and walk?  I did.  One day for 16 hours discovering all that I could from just the Latin Quarter to Les Halls.

5)        Pg. 34 – “The French dine to gratify, we to appease appetite,” observed John Sanderson.  “We demolish dinner, they eat it.”  Have times changed us at all?

6)        Pg. 39 – where you surprised to learn (if you did not already know) that our country’s capital was the work of a Frenchmen, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant?

7)        If you are a parent with college children either past or present, did you empathize with the parents of most of these young men and women, who financially supported them – some for years – so that they could learn their craft in a foreign land?

8)        Pg. 100 – 101 – Samuel F.B. Morse’s “The Gallery of the Louvre” eventually sold for $1,300 (Morse had hoped for $2,500).  But by 1982, it sold to a Chicago museum for $3,250,000, “the highest sum ever paid until then for a work by an American artist….”  That is a 250,000% increase…
            Or how about the Eiffel Tower, built for $1 M in 1889 and by the close of the World’s Fair that same year, it had sold 1,968,287 tickets (at $.40 - $.60 per) “bringing in more than a million dollars, a sum equal to the cost of building the tower.” (Pg 416)  According to Wikipedia, “more than 200,000,000 people have visited the tower since its construction in 1889, including 6,719200 in 2006.  The tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world.”
            It’s hard to even think about the value of other inventions like, the expansion of the telegraph into the telephone, medical advances, sailing ships into steam and diesel, etc…..

9)        Pg. 220-222 – American, James McNeill Whistler is mentioned within these pages, but there is not one mention of his most famous painting or mother, Anna McNeill Whistler… “Whistler’s Mother”, 1871 was pawned and then purchased “in 1891 by Paris’ Musee du Luxembourg. The painting is now owned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It occasionally tours worldwide.  Although an icon of American art, it rarely appears in the United States. (Wikipedia). Did McCullough not mention this painting because it was just too obvious to us all?

10)      Pg 316 – during the battles that raged France, can you imagine if the Commune had succeeded in burning everything that they had hoped, including the Louvre? 

11)      Pg 320 - 325 -- La Semain Sanglante (the Bloody Week) May 23 – 28.  Although undetermined, at least 20,000 – 25,000 people were slaughtered.  Wikipedia places it about 10,000 – 50,000 with… 7,500 jailed or deported and roughly 20,000 executed.”

12)      Pg. 333-334 – American Minister to France, Elihu B. Washburne, played an important political role in Paris for “8.5 years of unstinting service” (1869 – Sept., 10 1878?) during all its struggles with the Commune, Battle of Bismarck, and Bloody Week.  He was also on the committee of the Franco-American Union to promote the building of the Statue of Liberty by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi as a gift from France to the US to coincide with the Jul 4, 1876 celebrations.  McCullough certainly dedicates much of this novel to him, showing well what just one man can do for his country….
13)      Personal notation:  It was interesting to read how Paris seduced our youngest, brightest, and most forward-thinking Americans (men and women alike).  Had no other country done so?  It was also interesting to read in McCullough’s novel the rise of these same people from before they were famous and up to.  Likewise, the numbers of inventions, art, and other representations by Americans in the two Parisian World Fairs was incredible.

14)      It should also be noted that even today, the sojourn continues to Paris…Pat Conroy in MY READING LIFE, wrote that his most productive time writing about NC was while living in Paris.  I believe he was referring to his book “The Water is Wide”.

15)      Personal correlation:  El Jaleo the painting to “did you ever visit Chef Jose Andres El Jaleo Restaurants. In NY or Vegas?  






  1. The Greater Journey opens with a quotation by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens: "For we constantly deal with practical problems, with moulders, contractors, derricks, stonemen, trucks, rubbish, plasterers, and what-not-else, all while trying to soar into the blue." How does this quotation set the stage for The Greater Journey? What kinds of "practical problems" did Americans in Paris face, and how did they manage to "soar into the blue?"
  2. What were some of the challenges travelers faced on the journey from America to Paris? "Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun, as they already sensed, and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and their country than they yet knew." What is the "greater journey" that these Americans began after their voyage across the ocean? Why do you think McCullough chose the title The Greater Journey for this book?
  3. Describing Augustus Saint-Gaudens, McCullough writes, "he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus became accomplished himself." What were some of the reasons that Americans made the trip to Paris? What did they need to accomplish in Paris, and how did they become accomplished there?
  4. Describe the role of women within the community of Americans in Paris. What unique problems did women face in the city during the 19th century? How did female students, artists, and wives write about their experiences in Paris, as compared to their male counterparts?
  5. Describe the friendship between James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse. What seems to have drawn these men of different backgrounds and professions to each other? What kind of support did Cooper offer Morse during the creation of Gallery of the Louvre, and how did Morse include the Cooper family within the painting?
  6. The painter George Healy sailed to Paris in the 1830s, and according to his granddaughter, "His love of France and the French never changed him from an out-and-out American." Which of the other travelers within The Greater Journey would you also describe as out-and-out Americans? How did they express their patriotism while they lived overseas? 
  7. Consider the significance of letters and journals within the book. What kind of information does McCullough draw from historical letters and diaries? How would you compare the importance of letters and journals in the 19th century to the present day? How have issues of privacy, diplomacy, and record-keeping changed? 
  8. In The Greater Journey, we see France in political turmoil—Restoration, Franco-Prussian War, and Commune-led Paris—through the eyes of the young sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, medical student Mary Putnam, and the diplomat Elihu Washburne. What perspective on politics and violence does each of them offer? How do their motivations and opinions on war and revolution differ?
  9. Oliver Wendell Holmes called medicine "the noblest of arts." How is medical study portrayed in The Greater Journey? What advances in the profession does the book chronicle? What are some major differences between medical practice in 19th-century Paris and medicine as we know it today? 
  10. Compare the two painters who dominate the final chapters of The Greater Journey: Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. How were their lives and work similar, and how were they different?
  11. How would you classify The Greater Journey—is it the history of a community, the history of a place, or both? What is McCullough's particular style of narrating history? Which of McCullough's "narrators"—the men and women who witnessed the history of Paris—provides the clearest view of his or her environment?
  12. If you could tour Paris with any of the historical figures in The Greater Journey, who would it be? Would you want to explore the Louvre with Samuel Morse, discuss politics with Elihu Washburne, attend a concert with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, witness surgery with Elizabeth Blackwell, or appraise canvases with John Singer Sargent? Explain your answer.