Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik

(book review)

I ran into this book in the airport, of all places, at one of those small book stands next to the coffee machine.
Being a bit of a literary snob, I almost turned up my nose at this just because of that. But the more I flipped through it, the more hooked I became. I finally ended up buying the book and I can safely say, it was a great purchase.

To start with the author has chosen a fascinating subject. The book, subtitled "America and the Birth of the Modern World: 1788-1800", seeks to show how, even during the 18th Century, the world was just as internationally connected then as it is now. To demonstrate this, Winik focuses on 3 countries: Russia, France, and America, and seeks to show how what was happening in Moscow at the time had a direct impact on Paris and Washington, and vice-versa.

Of course, there has already been a great deal written on how the American Revolution impacted the French Revolutions . But what is unique about Winik's book is he starts at 1788, when the American Revolution was already finished. The book, therefore, is much more about the French Revolution, and how the French Revolution impacted American domestic politics, which is a topic much less explored than the reverse.

But where Winik really gets creative is when he also throws Russia into the picture, and attempts to tie in events in Moscow to what was happening in France and America. It's a really interesting concept.

For my money though, the really great thing about this book is the writing. For a historian, Winik writes surprisingly well, and this book was an absolute pleasure to read. Much of the book almost feels like a novel instead of an old dry and dusty history book.

For an example, read below the scene in which Danton and Camille Desmoulins (two French Revolutionaries who were instrumental in starting the French Revolution, but who were victims of a power struggle with Robespierre) are carted off to the guillotine.

"It was a cloudless spring day when the condemned men were carted off in five tumbrels to the familiar Place de la Revolution--like the monarchists before them, like the king and queen, like the nonrefractory priests, like their friends and colleagues from the Convention; even the radical leader Hebert had been cut down less than two weeks before. Danton was thirty-four and so was Desmoulins; it seemed like an eternity, and perhaps it was, since that fateful moment when Camille had risen up and exhorted Parisians to head for the Bastille. Passing through a huge and silent crowd, Danton bore up well; not so Desmoulins, who was near the cracking point. Leaning over the red-painted tumbrel he meekly appealed to the people: "I was the first apostle of Liberty; it was I that called the people to arms at the beginning." Pausing at the house where Robespierre lived, Danton, defiant as ever, rose up to his feet and shrieked once more, "I'm leaving everything in a frightful mess. Not a man of them had an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than to muck about with this politics." By now, night was falling. Reaching the scaffold, Desmoulins was third in line, Danton last--thus he could hear the whistle and thud as the blade fell on all the heads before him. For a fleeting moment he faltered, then roused himself, muttering: "Courage Danton, no weakness." As he approached the blood-splattered plank, he altered the ghastly ritual, exhorting Sanson, the executioner, "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's worth the trouble." A hush fell over the crowed. Eight days later, it would be Lucile Desmoulins, along with Hebert's widow and his Commune compatriot Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette, taking their turn at the guillotine.
The ledger was now wiped clean
."

Isn't that great the way Winik just hooks you in and then carries you right along? If you like history, I can guarantee you'll enjoy this book.

One can nit-pick Winik's writing style a little bit. He does have the annoying habit of, Rumsfeld-like, asking his own questions, and then immediately answering them the sentence following.
And he does occasionally slow down the narrative with pages of fluffy (and in my opinion, unnecessary) analysis.
But on the whole, it's a great read.

Winik also does a good job of following through on his thesis, and demonstrating how politics in Paris, Moscow, and Washington were all inter-related.

It is not, however, strictly an academic book in the sense that not every word in it is relevant to the main thesis. Rather, Winik uses the thesis as a jumping off point from which to explore other stories he finds of interest.

Thus, there is a lot written about Catherine the Great of Russia, and her war against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This has minimal relevance to what was happening in Paris and Washington, but it is an interesting story, and the parallels to modern history (the story of what happens when a Western superpower gets bogged down in a war against a Muslim nation) will not be lost on the modern reader.
Winik does attempt to bring out some international connections even here. He emphasizes the role of John Paul Jones (the American naval hero famous for coining the phrase, "I have not yet begun to fight") who briefly served on Russia's side during the war. But John Paul Jones's part in the war was very small, and he served as a private individual, and not as a government representative.

However, I was willing to forgive these narrative digressions because I didn't know anything about the Russia-Ottoman war, and because it was interesting to read about.

I was a bit more frustrated by the fact that the sections on the French Revolution focused almost entirely on King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (as English speaking histories have a tendency to do sometimes). Most of the French Revolution is retold as if the most important thing was the personal hardships of the royal family, and all the other leading figures of the French Revolution are pushed off to the sides.

Once King Louis and Marie get their heads sliced off, then Robespierre and the Jacobins are allowed to take center stage. But by then the only part of the French Revolution left to tell is how it descended into more and more terror.

Winik should have focused on the French Revolutionaries earlier, to make a more dramatic contrast between the early idealism at the beginning of the Revolution, and the chaos it ended up becoming.
As it is, his analysis sections are heavy with commentary about how the French Revolution descended from idealism to despotism, but we never fully get to see the transition in his narrative.
Also key figures like Thomas Paine and Lafayette, who symbolize the international connection between America and France, are cited repeatedly in the analysis sections, but we learn very little of them from the narrative sections.

Granted, Winik has an almost impossible task before him. He needs to track not just one, but 3 countries over the course of 12 years, and deal with all the historical giants that populated this period: Washington, Jefferson, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madison, Adams, Robespierre, Lafayette, Thomas Paine, Danton, Mirabeau, John Paul Jones, Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, Talleyrand, Napoleon, etc, etc,etc. I guess it's no wonder he fails to do justice to most of them.

Although the subtitle of the book is "AMERICA and the birth of the modern world", I suspect this was probably added by the publisher. It is France and the French revolution which take up the bulk of this book, both in terms of pages allotted to it and its impact on everything else. There are, however, some very interesting sections on the rivalry between Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Burr, and the 1800 election.

One final note: this is a quibble, but the index in this book is noticeably incomplete. In a book with so many names being tossed about, it would have been nice to have a more thorough index to help the reader keep track of everyone.

Link of the Day
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