THE GREATER JOURNEY: Americans in Paris. By David McCullough. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y. May 2011. 558 pages, photographs. $37.50 hardcover.

Rarely do the names David McCullough and Woody Allen come up in the same breath in summertime cocktail conversation. Mr. McCullough, the foremost popular historian in America, and Mr. Allen, the indefatigable wit and filmmaker, are acclaimed masters in their quite separate fields. But it seems these diverse icons both have a passion for Paris, and oddly both have come out this summer with magnificent time machines to transport willing American souls to the glorious past of the City of Light.

In Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, an adorably self-conscious Owen Wilson channels a Jimmy Stewart-like screen writer/aspiring novelist into the select after-hours salons of Paris in the 20s. Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Stein — all the legends speak to the impressionable time traveler as he grapples with his own artistic integrity. Midnight in Paris magically re-establishes nostalgia (mais oui!) for what it once was, and Allen’s colorful fantasy charms those with even the vaguest affection for that old, chic lit’ry lifestyle and for the American luminaries who sipped at its enchanted Parisian fount.

Whereas Midnight serves up a sweet, tantalizing soupçon of Paris in the 1920s, David McCullough’s spirited and engrossing The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris takes the reader back further and in substantial, satisfying depth to examine the lives of eminent Americans who made important pilgrimages to Paris, beginning in the 1830s and leading right up to the early 20th century.

Charles Sumner, James Fenimore Cooper, Emma Willard, Samuel F.B. Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Healy, Jonathan Mason Warren — all these gifted Americans felt Paris was essential to enrich their education, their professional skills and their character.

With the amiable, avuncular McCullough as our guide, we join portraitist Samuel F. B. Morse, future inventor of the telegraph, as he dines with the human symbol of Franco-American amity, Lafayette, who had posed for a Morse portrait several years before on the Marquis’s return trip to America in 1825. We join medical students Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mason Warren on hospital rounds as Chief Surgeon Baron Guillaume Dupuytren removes tumors of the tongue or extracts cataracts from the eyes or creates an artificial anus on patients by candlelight. We also accompany the proudly discerning Troy, N.Y., school mistress Emma Willard to the Louvre, as she squeamishly inspects the anatomically frank male and female statuary and portraits and warns her pupils back in Troy by letter that they should perhaps admire America, “. . . where the eye of modesty is not publicly affronted, and virgin delicacy can walk abroad without a blush.”

But The Greater Journey is much more than a collection of curious and vivid anecdotes. McCullough weaves a rich and intricate tapestry that moves gracefully and fascinatingly from one decade to the next. As Americans are swept into the often violent and ruthless events of Paris life, notably the long siege of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 — when zoo animals, domestic cats and dogs, and sewer rats were butchered and sold for food — and the lawless winter and spring of the Paris Commune in 1871 — when a bitter civil war in Paris created more bloody carnage than the Revolution of 1789 had ever seen — many desperate Americans were forced to hide or flee. McCullough’s description of the quiet heroism of Elihu Washburne, the American ambassador, in saving thousands of expatriot lives during this period sheds light on a neglected phase of American diplomacy. Moreover, viewing 19th century French history through the eyes of Americans living in Paris gives a convenient perspective and makes the rise and fall of the various French governments during the period, thanks to Professor McCullough’s superb narration, much more understandable.

Americans, of course, could also dazzle the French. The unflappable showman P.T. Barnum profited hugely from French fascination with his tiny General Tom Thumb’s show. The artist George Caitlin caused a royal flourish when he brought an outlandishly-clad, war-painted troupe of Iowa Indians to the Tuileries Palace to dance before King Louis-Philippe and his family. For the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, when the Eiffel Tower outraged, then conquered the French public aesthetic, Buffalo Bill Cody arrived with Annie Oakley to amaze the huge crowds with his mighty and rambunctious Wild West Show.

Many deeply affecting life stories are depicted in McCullough’s marvelous book. Samuel Morse’s dogged dedication to his painting career eventually gave way, almost ironically, to his invention and promotion of the telegraph. George Healy’s lifelong persistence in studying portraiture paid off dramatically in reputation and financial rewards. Mary Cassatt’s dedication to her craft and eventual acceptance by Degas and the French Impressionists proved a remarkable example of feminine vision, talent and spunk. The quiet patience of Augustus Saint Gaudens, son of a poor French shoemaker, as he pursued his sculpting career, culminated in many enduring and landmark historic sculptures to grace our American buildings and streets for generations, if not centuries.

For the genius John Singer Sargent, who at 21 had never been in America but considered himself American, Paris seemed the only possible place in the world where he could hone his craft and be recognized unequivocally as one of the finest young artists in the world. McCullough tells us exactly how and why he was.

McCullough also depicts the visit by William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave from Kentucky, who was one of 800 delegates at an 1849 international peace conference, Victor Hugo presiding. Brown told the assembly that to speak against slavery in the United States might be a risk to his life, whereas in Paris he could utter his sentiments “freely.”

The seeds of American democracy are said to derive from the teachings of the 17th and 18th century French philosophes . Since then, French thinkers and artists and scientists and musicians and movie stars and film directors and fashion designers have all continued to inspire and challenge Americans.

Paris has remained the central beacon of this cultural allure. David McCullough’s remarkable depiction of that influence on Americans during the 19th Century helps us understand who we were then. The Greater Journey may also help us understand why we still want to go to Paris — like Woody Allen’s aspiring young novelist — to find out who we are now.