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Friday, May 26, 2017

“The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800”, by Jay Winik

690 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN-13: 978-0060083137

Author Jay Winik certainly loves his adjectives and gives them a real workout in The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, an informative and entertaining – but ultimately disappointing and hyperbolic – account of the events that roiled the end of the 18th Century. Want an example? Okay, how’s this: “…how to comprehend the greatest generation of talent in American history: the visionary Hamilton, the sublime Jefferson, the iconoclastic Adams and the sober Madison, than to see them in relation to the great revolutionary spirits of France, like the aristocratic Mirabeau, the fulminating Marat, the audacious Danton, and the intense Robespierre – or, for that matter, the dashing Polish hero Kosciuszko, or the inimitable Russian, Prince Grigory Potemkin?” The whole book is like this, and believe you me it doesn’t take long for these superfluous utterances to become exhausting. The main problem, however, is that, despite the title, The Great Upheaval is focused mostly on the French Revolution, with the American Revolution and the empire-building ways of the Russians thrown in…and therein is the problem, for while Winik has purported to have written a work in which the American Revolution was supposed to have been shown in the context of the larger world, over the almost 700 pages of his book he doesn’t manage to make much of a connection among the three, except to say repeatedly that these were exciting times all over and that the parties concerned were all paying some attention to what was going on elsewhere.

In long strings of clauses laden with the afore-mentioned excess verbiage, Winik describes the history of the times by recounting the “unmitigated horror”, the “momentous decisions”, the “dreaded specter”, the “clarion call” – well, you get the idea. His clauses sometimes sound like personals ads: “incorrigibly flawed yet ironically suited”, “inspired yet quixotic”, “uncommonly brave yet psychologically frail”. Triteness is not a barrier to Winik, as he has no qualms about describing “golden shores”, “quickening pulses”, or “words dripping with emotion”; nor about exclaiming that “behind this legend was a man” who was “of fabled status”, or “it was a fateful day” but “it was not to be”. Alliteration also has great appeal in his tour of the adjectives: “audaciously assumed”, “terrible toll”, “defiantly demanded”, “frenzied fighting”. But where he waxes most florid in his verbal outpourings is in the tales of war: “ghastly massacre”, “blood flowed like rivers”, “bestial fighting”, “crushing defeat”, “murderous enemy”, “brutally decapitated” (is there such a thing as a non-brutal decapitation?). But then this is a book where nothing happens quietly. Food is not just consumed; it is demolished. The sun does not shine; it blazes. Cannons not only fire; they boom.

So much for style. What about the substance? Winik’s thesis is that the years 1788 – 1800 saw the birth of the modern world and he looks at this period through the prism of events occurring in France, Russia and the United States. In two of these cases there were certainly events with far-reaching consequences – namely, the French Revolution and the founding of the United States – but in the case of Russia, it is harder to see the significance of these years in comparison with some other periods. While there is no intrinsic problem in using, as Winik does almost exclusively, secondary sources in his book, it still contains little that is new or insightful concerning this era. There are several vivid descriptions of the Terror in Paris and other parts of France in the early 1790s. That Winik is most interested in the events in France and Russia is obvious as the histories of both countries dominates the book, while events in America during this time place third fiddle – indeed, from halfway through the book until the end the U.S. is hardly mentioned at all. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the overwrought writing, for the most part I was enjoying the retelling of familiar history: a blow-by-blow account of the lead-up to the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette may not be among the most important aspects of the French Revolution, but it sure makes for good drama; likewise, the story of Catherine the Great’s suppression of a peasant revolt amid the complications of her love affair with Grigory Potemkin is quite interesting. But for all of that what I was expecting – because that is what I was sold – was a history of the American Revolution as it related to the rest of the (read: Western) World; what I got instead was a dual-history of France and Russia in which the United States was nothing more than a sideshow.

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