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For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 26, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Departing from biographies of Zola (1995) and Flaubert (2006), Brown enters the French social and political milieu in which those novelists’ works were set. It was vengeful after national defeat by Prussia in 1870, and venomous following the civil war of 1871. Perfectly evoking those moods, Brown advances the attitudes and aspirations of the factions into which French society had fractured, as expressed through the popular press and as interpreted by politicians jockeying for position. Riding a Catholic religious revival, monarchists rallied for a restoration, but the Bourbon pretender stymied their plan. A surge by secularists then sharpened political and religious animosities, so that by the 1880s, France seemed eager for another man on horseback: he appeared as General Georges Boulanger. If, after Boulanger’s vertiginous rise and fall, all factions had to reconcile to France being a republic, for better or worse, then the republic’s relation to the Catholic Church, to business scandals, and to anti-Semitism revealed by the Dreyfus affair still convulsed the politics of the 1890s. A master of the fin de siècle, Brown will engross Francophiles. --Gilbert Taylor


"Brown has the rare ability to write reliable and well-researched history for a broad nonspecialized public. Francophiles, in particular, will love this book."

—Susan Rubin Suleiman, The New York Times Book Review

"Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times . . . For the Soul of France offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader). After reading it, visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again."

—Michel Gurfinkiel, The Wall Street Journal

"Richly illustrated . . . an important work of cultural and intellectual history."

Library Journal (starred)

"For the Soul of France is masterful history, brilliantly researched, and hard to put down."

—Henry A. Kissinger

"For the Soul of France is a very good example of cultural history. It suggest that even in the heyday of bourgeois materialism, the most important, and often decisive, matter was what large groups of people preferred to think and believe. His episodes are well-selected, and their developments well-written."

—John Lukacs, author of Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture; Historical Consciousness: Or, The Remembered Past; The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler

"A master of the fin de siècle, Brown will engross Francophiles."


“Nobody outside France writes better about French history and culture in the late 19th Century than Frederick Brown, and his latest book, FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE, brings to life for anyone who enjoys history, the Third Republic's immense eruption of scandal; artistic, scientific and technological innovation and creativity. It is a period of
artistic triumph and of political turmoil, the latter increased by the ferocity of a nation divided by defeat in 1871, and by a moral and religious schism that culminated in the Dreyfus Case. The names alone--Gambetta, Thiers, Eiffel, de Lesseps, Zola, Boulanger, Clemenceau--mark the richness of the era, with its fatal combination of dissent, pugnacity, fin de siecle bourgeois luxury and revolutionary art, all of it overshadowed by the thirst for revenge against Germany that brought France to enter the First World War, and the martyrdom of a whole generation, with such misguided enthusiasm. This is the world that ended in 1914 and that all of Europe would look back on with such nostalgia and regret; it is an epic piece of history on a grand scale, full of deeply disturbing resemblances to our own.”

                     —Michael Korda, author of IKE, ULYSSES S. GRANT and WITH WINGS

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (January 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266316
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #891,548 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Frederick Brown is the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor's Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Read this book if you get the chance.
Many of the basic facts are still unknown, largely because most of the principal players lied like troupers.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope more Americans will read it.
Morris Foutch

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Tresillian on January 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
They say you should write about what you know and Frederick Brown certainly knows the French. The events he chronicles at the end of the 19th century lead us through the quest to discern what exactly constitutes the essence of France.

Here is the saga of France's sojourn from Monarchy to Republic. The French revolution may have begun in 1789 but it was fought well into the twentieth century. The author picks up the tale at the Franco Prussian War in 1870. He gives us the events that shaped France into the country we now see; but what a convoluted, tortured trip it has been. It's a miracle the Third Republic survived with attacks from left and right, economic disasters, and revolving door Premiers. As France struggled through failed governments and the demi-gods who threatened, she constantly searched for a scapegoat. The Catholic Church and the Germans took their fair share of hits but the old standby, Jewry, bears the brunt of the attack.

There will always be those who refuse to give up the past, praying for the return of a monarch or an emperor, insisting on France for the French. Luckily there were also those who challenged the old ways and the old religion and fought for free, secular education. Thiers, Clemenceau & Zola fought to build the Republic. The conservatives and royalists reawakened the symbol of Joan of Arc. Eiffel's tower sits in juxtaposition to Sacre Coeur. On one side the growth of technology and scientific thought. On the hill in Montmartre France's penance for the sins heaped upon her by the church.

Read this book because you'll see the frightening similarities to the first ten years of the 21st century. There are all the lies, finger-pointing, invented evidence we've seen since 2000. There's a lion's share of yellow journalism.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on February 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Quite good for the reader seeking to better understand the two main cultural driving forces of the period of 1848 to 1908 within France: Catholic church/tradition vs. liberal thought/the modern. And, of course, what is said of this turbulent period has echoes to the present day.

Frederick Brown is a good writer with an excellent grasp of the various stories he spins in this book, such as the funding scandal surrounding the Panama Canal, the building of Eiffel's tower, and, importantly, that of the ill-fated Captain Dreyfus.

"For the Soul of France" reminds one that the current "cultural wars" within the United States are somewhat tame compared to the deep chasms dividing the population of 19th century France.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By margot on May 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A luscious bonbon of pop history. Elegantly designed, from its typography (in Sabon, since you ask: the book has a colophon, of course) to its deckle-edge pages, cover design and tasteful choice of illustrations. The signatures in my copy were glued a little too tightly and I sometimes had to tear at them a little to open the book out flat, but this just adds to its Craftsman elegance. I came across only two typos or misspellings. I like to think these were due to the overconfidence of the book editors who, presented with an electronic ms. in what looked like immaculate prose, didn't bother with copy editors and proofreaders, and just zipped it off to the print shop in Lancaster, PA.

Frederick Brown's last books were biographies were acclaimed biographies of Zola and Flaubert. His love for the era fill his narrative with a warm glow. Here he has set himself a trickier subject. This is not the story of a single author finding his voice and battling his critics, or a rhapsody about the greatness of French culture, but an investigation of a proud national civilization in midlife crisis, when a lot of ugly things were said and done.

The most useful parts of the book are the chapters about the Union Generale bank, the Panama Scandal, and the soap-bubble-like political enthusiasm for General Boulanger. These were the hot crises of the "peaceful" decade of the 1880s. I've read about them before, but always found my eyes glazing over. Momentous events and sparkling personalities, yes; but there are just too many of them. Brown handles them all with entertaining concision.

The heart of the book, unsurprisingly, is the section on the Dreyfus Affair. For most people this has always been an infernal puzzlement.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Thomas M. Sullivan on July 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Someone once wrote that but for the uncounted careers and lives shattered or lost, the personal and public fortunes scattered or purloined, the military scandals and misadventures, and the viciously irreligious religious disputes, nineteenth century French political life would make a marvelous comic opera. It came too late, but one can easily imagine Gilbert & Sullivan concocting a delightful operetta of the Dreyfus Affair were it not for the fact that the duplicitous machinations of the Army General Staff, the pernicious irresponsibility of the popular press, and the noxious fulminations of execrable anti-Semites would combine to suggest a libretto more fantastical than any `Mikado' or "Pinafore.'

Despite my fondness for one or two chanteuses, I have never been particularly intrigued by post-Revolutionary French domestic history (excepting Napoleon and his tumultuous era) because I have found trying to follow the ebb's and flow's of the various regimes, up to and including to the present day, not really worth the effort. The royals may have been despotic by definition but at least they possessed a facially consistent claim to legitimacy and internal symmetry as evidenced by the fact that a very considerable part of the population never fell out of love with the idea of them, if not their earthly embodiments. But one has to admit that the French are a beguiling bunch, even as they defy comprehension, and so I took a chance on this book because of its stated premise. After all, there is nothing in French history more difficult to get a handle on than how it unfolded in the nineteenth century. And, with Ms. Piaf, I have no regrets.
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