September 01, 2011

National Review review of McCullough's "The Greater Journey"

As a friend wrote, "Just goes to show you: God can save us from ourselves by any means He chooses!"
But McCullough saves the place of honor, the grand finale, for Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The preeminent American sculptor of the late 19th century, Saint-Gaudens was known for his Civil War monuments, and in the 1890s, New York City commissioned him to cast an equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman for the entrance of Central Park at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.

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Just as his artistic success reached its apex, his health collapsed. His wife left for the U.S., depriving him of his emotional ballast, and a tumor conquered his lower intestine. One day, he succumbed to depression and “decided that I would end it all.” He ran to the Seine, mounted a bridge, and was about to end his life when “I saw the Louvre in the bright sunlight and suddenly everything was beautiful to me.” He believed, concludes McCullough, that it was Paris itself that had saved him.

At that moment, Saint-Gaudens realized Paris’s true power, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had described several decades earlier: “One in whom this [sense of beauty] had long been repressed, in coming into Paris, feels a rustling and a waking within him, as if the soul were crying to unfold her wings.” A fuller sense of beauty was Paris’s gift to these young people, a gift they bequeathed to future generations of Americans.

Through all of these stories, McCullough reminds us that these Americans didn’t love their country merely because it was their own, but because it was lovely — and they wished to add to its beauty. By rescuing their stories from oblivion and telling them in his luminous prose, he adds to the luster of history, a field in which, these days, a sense of beauty is sorely lacking. McCullough succeeds because he sees the greater significance of his work, and the care with which he writes reveals that greater purpose. He tells these stories so as to inspire the current generation of Americans to the pursuit of excellence: a virtue McCullough’s work both encourages and exemplifies.

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