From Publishers Weekly
Considering Rousseau's prominence and historical importance, it is surprising to discover that (according to the publisher) this is the first single-volume biography in English. Damrosch, a professor of literature at Harvard University, has succeeded in presenting an incisive, accessible and sensitive portrait of this unpleasant, infuriating "restless genius."Sometimes, indeed, perhaps a little too sensitive: Damrosch's admiration can prevent his strongly condemning where condemnation is due. Rousseau (1712–1778) was the man, we should recall, who consigned his own infants to a foundling home, who sent a miserably small sum of money to his ailing former patroness and who bought an adolescent girl for nefarious purposes. Where Damrosch truly excels is in not only masterfully explaining the originality and meaning of Émile
, The Social Contract
and the Confessions
, but in relating those works to their author's conflicted, contradictory psyche. As Rousseau himself admitted, "I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices."Also, in vividly delineating the sage's final decade for the first time, Damrosch has performed a signal service: Maurice Cranston, who was writing a three-volume biography, died before completing the last part—thereby leaving readers in the dark as to Rousseau's fate. No longer. 43 b&w illus.
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*Starred Review* "An interesting madman" in the eyes of a contemporary critic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tested the limits of all that his age considered sane. Indeed, Damrosch asserts that English-speaking readers need this new biography largely because Cranston's definitive three-volume work (1982, 1991, 1997) ignores the strong strain of eccentricity running throughout the life of this French genius. That eccentric strain, Damrosch shows, estranged Rousseau both from the defenders of the ancien regime and from the rising generation of freethinking philosophers. Readers, therefore, see the same man horrifying aristocrats with the secular and democratic principles of his Social Contract
and infuriating Enlightenment progressives with the moral pieties of his Letter to D'Alembert
. Damrosch acknowledges that Rousseau cleared the ground for the orthodoxies erected by Freud and Marx, but he adduces considerable evidence that Rousseau himself never lived by any consistent body of doctrines. A gifted Harvard scholar, Damrosch translates revealing excerpts from letters, memoirs, and (of course) the infamous Confessions
to show just how often Rousseau's public writings reflected erratic private impulses and not the rigor of rational logic. It was these unpredictable and wavering impulses that made Rousseau the father of five children that he abandoned at foundling homes and the author of numerous books that he subsequently could not even understand and regretted having written. A compelling portrait of a vagrant titan. Bryce ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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