Review of The Great Upheaval
By Steve Weinberg - Denver Post go to original review »
Any historian with a fine mind and a compelling writing style could probably build a strong book about any decade of American destiny, beginning with the Revolutionary War.
Jay Winik, who teaches history at the University of Maryland, without question possesses a fine mind and writes compellingly. The decade he has chosen is the 1790s - as opposed to the 1860s, which provided the foundation for his previous book, “April 1865.”
The 1790s is a wise choice, and Winik makes his book especially memorable by focusing not just on the trendy Founding Fathers (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, among others) but also on the leaders of the French Revolution and the leaders of the Russian ruling class as they deal with threats from the masses stirring outside the Kremlin gates.
It is Winik’s thesis that what happened in each nation - with Great Britain as an important but secondary player - during the 1790s influenced what happened in the other nations. Winik makes a convincing argument that the American Revolution, French Revolution and Russian Repression should not be studied in isolation.
Winik opens the book with a historical backdrop, showing how the British colonies began morphing into the United States of America decades before the 1790s, how the seeds of revolution began growing in France, how monarchical absolutism seemed unshakeable in Russia.
By the time the American Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, the fates of all the established European and Asian nations had become intertwined with the astounding happenings across the Atlantic Ocean.
France, ruled by King Louis XVI just before the gathering storm in Paris, intervened on behalf of the American revolutionaries partly as a way to pay back the British for the Seven Years’ War battering. The Spanish and the Dutch followed suit, for their own selfish nationalistic reasons.
As for Russia, ruled by Empress Catherine the Great, her motives seemed so murky and her moods so changeable that nobody could figure out how her actions might affect the American revolutionaries. Eventually, also in spite of herself, Catherine encouraged revolution, something she feared deeply in her own empire.
To demonstrate Winik’s overall way with words and his skillful character sketches, here is his introduction of a protagonist, after stating that tsar after tsar before the protagonist had led to seemingly perpetual madness in the vast Russian empire:
“… It was in 1762 that the real changes came, with another majestic occupant of the Romanov throne, who would cast a broad shadow across the remainder of the century and the four corners of the globe. Yet this tsar wasn’t a man, or a Romanov, or even a Russian. She was a minor German princess, Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, born to a small house of royalty in the hodgepodge territory of the Holy Roman Empire. We know her today by a different name, Ekaterina, or later, as Catherine the Great.”
Winik introduces not only political rulers but also intellectual powerhouses, thus giving the book a welcome dimension beyond the usual fare of such histories.
The biggest strength of the book is Winik’s effort to prove that the occurrences in each nation affected the other nations. As he says, “Though the chapters of this book are organized by accounts of America, France and Russia, which serve as frames through which to see the larger age, the story is actually one continuous, interlocking narrative, unfolding much as the protagonists of the day themselves saw it.”
When Winik actually accomplishes what he promises - explaining the drama through the minds of those involved in it - the book is history at its finest.
Unfortunately, from time to time Winik tells rather than shows, giving the text a preachy tone. He also spends his valuable capital with readers unwisely at times, attributing so much meaningfulness to this action or an inaction that it becomes difficult to tell what is truly significant. Not all books of about 700 pages are too long, but this one is.
That criticism of the book is more than carping. But the criticism does not erase the premise of this review: Anybody who cares about why the United States, Russia and France are as they are today will find plenty to appreciate in this book. After all, the past is prologue.
Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.
Jay Winik is one of the nation's leading historians and the author of the New York Times bestsellers April 1865 and The Great Upheaval. read more »
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