Review of The Great Upheaval
By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY go to original review »
It is appropriate that Jay Winik’s riveting The Great Upheaval is published this Sept. 11. The author of April 1865 examines another profoundly turbulent period in history, 1788-1800. It is reassuring to read about how human beings survived an era as unsettled as our own.
At the end of the 18th century, blood and new ideas were everywhere: There was the utopia-turned-nightmare of the French Revolution and its guillotine. There was the unimaginably savage conflict between Orthodox Russia and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Accepted beliefs about man, God, kings and the world were upended.
And there was the just-hatched United States, trying to establish itself as a viable, independent government against all odds.
Founding Father fever has long gripped the reading public. Ron Chernow, David McCullough and Joseph Ellis have produced terrific books about Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to mention just a few.
Winik joins the group with The Great Upheaval. With a twist. He looks beyond the Continental USA and adds a European perspective. In alternating chapters, Winik presents what was happening in France and Russia as well as in the USA. (England is touched on.) He stresses that Europe and America were far more connected than we realize.
“There was an uncommon fluidity of the age … almost unheard of even today,” writes Winik. “Intellectuals, advisors, military men, and ideas freely crossed borders, changed allegiances, settled in, and then moved on.”
Thus, when the French executed their king and queen, the reverberations were felt in the streets outside George Washington’s Philadelphia residence and in the Russian palaces of the horrified Empress Catherine the Great.
Broadening his approach lets Winik expand his cast of historical characters and showcase his dazzling ability to capture the drama of history. Upheaval includes a comprehensive synthesis of historical trends that crossed country boundaries: the rise of nationalism, the Enlightenment, the erosion of religion and monarchies.
And like Antonia Fraser, Winik includes the vivid, telling human details that stick with the reader. He does a spectacular job in detailing the collapse of the French monarchy, the last days of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and figures like Robespierre, Danton and Marat. The chapters about Russia and the Ottoman Empire are particularly strong because for American readers with an appetite for accessible history, here is new material. Winik is one of those delightfully opinionated historians who doesn’t hide his feelings about the men and women of the past.
His admiration for the dynamic, German-born princess who transformed herself into the Tsarina Catherine the Great through hard work, raw ambition and brains vibrates off the page. She embraced the Enlightenment but became a tyrant to keep power.
Winik’s point is that this era produced many titanic figures. What set America apart was George Washington’s unique willingness to let go of power by not running for a third term and the creation of a government based on balance and compromise. With the exception of slavery, issues could be settled without bloodshed.
This is one of those books you want to buy for friends and family. And our country’s current leaders.
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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