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As the historical-scholarship industry expands, certain subjects, and not only the most interesting ones, have become so weighed down with bibliography that the historian wishing to create a coherent picture of a famous epoch, episode, or personage will soon be as overwhelmed as a man trying to hack his way through the Amazon with a pair of nail scissors. To remind us just what attracted so many writers to these subjects in the first place—to reanimate corpses that seem thoroughly vulturized—thus becomes a difficult challenge, one rarely met as well as in Frederick Brown’s sweeping reevaluation of late-nineteenth-century France, FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE: CULTURE WARS IN THE AGE OF DREYFUS (Knopf, $30).
In less than 300 pages, Brown, a biographer of Zola and Flaubert, brings together a host of characters who have themselves spawned thick biographies—Napoléon III, Gustave Eiffel, Alfred Dreyfus—along with others less known today outside France, such as Ernest Renan, a former seminarian whose pioneering scientific study of Christ, La vie de Jésus, earned him papal opprobrium and bagfuls of hate mail, including a letter from a countess declaring that “the corruption flowing from your soul is even more hideous than its fleshly envelope, revoltingly ugly though that is”; or the vigorous engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, a sixty-four-year-old widower with five sons who, after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869, “married an eighteen-year-old and fathered twelve more children during the next sixteen years.”
Brown opposes two famous buildings—the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur and the Eiffel Tower—to illustrate a pitched battle in fin-de-siècle France. The former, championed by royalists and reactionary Catholics, was meant to rededicate the nation to a faith the right wing felt had been abandoned with the Revolution, and was advertised as the grave of “the principles of 1789.” The nationalist party, on the other hand, insisted with increasing hysteria that the thousand-foot iron tower “embodied a Jewish conspiracy.” The two factions—one secular and republican, the other ultramontane and dedicated to the restoration of the ancien régime—clashed most memorably in the Dreyfus affair, but, Brown shows, the matter was not put to rest with Dreyfus’s pardon. Indeed, years after Dreyfus’s death, the Vichy government would incriminate him a second time.
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