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Steven Englund BA, MA'67
Napoleon Bonaparte left his native Corsica at the tender age of 9, to attend the military school at Brienne; he competed there with classmates who were native speakers of French (he was not) and whose social status was above his own. He returned to Brienne for a brief visit in 1804, at the age of 35, having recently made himself emperor of the French. And 1804, of course, was just a little beyond the midpoint of his career: for good and ill, there was much yet to come.
Small wonder that a study of Napoleon is, as Steven Englund reveals, an "unnerving undertaking" (p. 473). There is simply too much there -- too much history encompassed in his person, too much controversy, and too much information (and too many axes to grind) -- in the volumes and polemics produced about him since his death. And historians are generally wary, usually with good cause, of the "great man" theory of history, focusing instead on economic and social forces. Certainly even Napoleon's genius would not have taken him far in the old regime, where the highest offices were beyond the reach of lowly members of the Corsican nobility. The revolution undoubtedly opened doors for him. Yet it is evident from Englund's masterful study that Bonaparte had a major role in creating the world in which he lived -- seizing opportunities, transforming near-disasters into victories, always acting with an eye on the main chance.
Napoleon: A Political Life is a terrific book -- fast-moving and well-written, yet also meditative and analytical. The best feature of this study is the author's ability to strip away the layers of myth and legend (though he also looks at the myth and legend) to get to Napoleon's life as it was lived at the time, and before everyone knew the end of the story. What emerges most clearly is Napoleon's sense of improvisation; his genius lay in his ability to size things up on the ground and to change plans on the fly, in battle as in the equally treacherous waters of French politics. He was willing, as Englund notes, to live with ambiguity (p. 59), to leave things fluid until successful action was possible. Sometimes his genius failed him -- as, for example, in his bungling of his own Brumaire coup to seize power in 1799; Englund has provided one of the best accounts of that curious episode. Napoleon's effort to deploy respect for Islam and the language of the Koran in his Egyptian expedition sound a startlingly modern note -- both in the attempt itself, and in his frequent blunders and missteps. The collapse of the empire had as much to do with a failure of imagination, as Englund notes, as it did with lost battles. In the end, Napoleon had no broad vision of a unified Europe to offer the conquered, only the chance to serve an aggrandized France. He recovered his creativity in the 100 Days, and in his crafty respinning of his life in the years of exile on Saint Helena -- too late for his career, but not for his legend.
The story of Napoleon will always be mesmerizing; in his Political Life, Steven Englund has, quite simply, written one of the best books, and certainly the best book in decades, about the endlessly fascinating colossus who dominated his era.
Harsin is a professor of history. See also Englund's essay in this issue.
Eliza F. Kent
(Oxford University Press)
With the emergence of Hindu nationalism, the conversion of Indians to Christianity has become a volatile issue, erupting in violence against converts and missionaries. At the height of British colonialism, however, conversion was a path to upward mobility for low-castes and untouchables, especially in the Tamil-speaking south of India. In this book, Eliza Kent, assistant professor of religion, takes a fresh look at these conversions, focusing especially on the experience of women converts and the ways in which conversion transformed gender roles and expectations.
Taking into consideration the ways that public behavior, social status, and the transformation of everyday life inform religious conversion, Kent's study poses an important challenge to normative notions of conversion as a privatized, individual moment in time. — From the dust jacket
(Bucknell University Press)
This book offers a close reading of selected poetic, dramatic, and prose works by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). With thorough knowledge of theoretical debates about writing, subjectivity, and gender, Frederick Luciani, professor of Spanish, elucidates ways in which this important colonial Mexican intellectual and literary figure created a textual self through her writing. Exploring the traces of Sor Juana's process of literary self-fashioning contextually and over time, Luciani establishes a benchmark for a new understanding of the Mexican nun and poet for the future. — From the dust jacket
(The Disinformation Company Ltd.)
In 1999, Joscelyn Godwin, professor of music, achieved the near-impossible task of translating into English the 500-year-old Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an erotic, pagan epic written in a private language peppered with words taken from Latin and Greek, and decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Then, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason drew upon the authentic 1499 Renaissance text to write The Rule of Four, a novel about two Princeton undergraduates who try to unravel its mysteries. It became a bestseller.
In The Real Rule of Four, Godwin carefully investigates each aspect of the history of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and its use in The Rule of Four.
The book is lavishly illustrated with reproductions of the beautiful woodcuts in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and images of the featured locations at Princeton University in The Rule of Four.
Sanford Sternlicht MA'55
(University of Wisconsin Press)
Nearly two million Jewish men, women, and children emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1882 and 1924 and settled in, or passed through, the Lower East Side of New York City. The Tenement Saga tells the story of Sternlicht's own childhood in this vibrant part of the city and situates his experience within the context of 14 significant early 20th-century East Side writers. Anzia Yezierska, Abraham Cahan, Michael Gold, Henry Roth, and others writing in English defined this new "Jewish homeland" and paved the way for the great Jewish American novelists of the second half of the 20th century.
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