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Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power Hardcover – January 14, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (December 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674036247
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674036246
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,320,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

On the 150th anniversary of his death, the great British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) remains an enigmatic character, steeped in contradictions between his actions, his proclamations and his interior life. The latter is not Sullivan's central concern. Thus, the concealed love Macaulay felt for his two youngest sisters is not far developed here. Sullivan concentrates instead on Macaulay's uncanny understanding of England's grand position in the world. The author observes that long before Henry Kissinger, [Macaulay] understood that 'power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.' What makes him a unusual figure for our time is his classicism—his chief models being Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus—as well as his position as a bestseller with a multivolume history of England. Macaulay's literary interests included Milton, Dryden, Byron and Bacon, but Machiavelli was the overriding influence, says Sullivan, a historian and associate vice president of Notre Dame. Macaulay detested Dickens for his socialistic smarminess; he anticipated Ivan Pavlov more than Sigmund Freud; and he was an abolitionist who didn't believe in abolishing slavery. Overall, Macaulay remains a confounding figure, whose personality lies largely unraveled. 18 b&w illus. (Dec.)
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In this long-awaited study, Robert Sullivan clearly and persuasively explores Thomas Babington Macaulay's personal life and intellectual development in tandem, a difficult and rare achievement. He presents a probing, convincing, and ultimately devastating portrait of the mind of a liberal imperialist that transforms our understanding of Macaulay. Victorian intellectual history has no similar study. Macaulay is a major accomplishment that makes Sullivan one of the premier Victorianists of his generation. (Frank M. Turner, Yale University)

In this boldly original but elegantly executed book, Sullivan coolly subverts many of the central preconceptions through which we have conventionally interpreted Macaulay. By focusing on several aspects of Macaulay's intellect hitherto discounted or entirely neglected--the formative and intensely personal nature of his classicism, his carefully camouflaged scepticism, his profound psychological disturbances, and not least his consistently ruthless attitudes toward Ireland--Sullivan has produced a more complex--and darker--portrait of the great Victorian than has ever before been conceived. (Ciaran Brady, Trinity College Dublin)

[An] exceptional book about the great 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay...Sullivan's portrait of the historian-statesman is unimpeachable, based on a deep reading of Macaulay's voluminous correspondence, journals, speeches, essays, and books. The man who emerges from this detailed portrait is loathsome but also sad. That he was popular in his own age says worlds about emerging values in mid-19th-century England...Enthusiastically recommended; this exceptionally well-written work will please all serious lovers of history. (David Keymer Library Journal 2009-10-15)

It is a testament to Sullivan's complex and sophisticated approach that I ended up both detesting and admiring Macaulay more...This is a fascinating, provocative study. In our era, of citizenship tests and pre-emptive strikes, when what makes, binds or breaks a nation is a pressing concern, Macaulay's legacy is more instructive than ever to re-examine. (Stuart Kelly Scotland on Sunday 2010-01-17)

Superbly researched...[An] impressive and subtle book. (Raymond Carr Spectator 2010-01-30)

A magisterial biography of a man now nearly forgotten and always clearly misunderstood... Elegant, erudite, and enlightening. (David M. Shribman Boston Globe 2010-03-18)

[A] virtuosically argued and detailed account. (Brian Morton Sunday Herald 2010-03-21)

[Sullivan's] biography is well paced and richly detailed...His book is an absorbing tour through the world of an elite Victorian liberal. (Jeffrey Collins New Criterion 2010-04-01)

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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Peter Rowland on April 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a running commentary on Macaulay's life rather than a straightforward biography, its author being an exceptionally erudite academic with a massive axe to grind. It scathingly besmirches its subject whenever an opportunity to do so arises. Dr Sullivan is brilliant in places, and makes some fair points convincingly, but he accuses Macaulay of virtually every sin under the sun (not excluding incest and murder). He drags in, moreover, a vast amount of extraneous material, including the Vietnam War and the Rolling Stones. For this reader, at any rate, the sheer accumulation of the items on the charge-sheet eventually proved counter-productive. (On a lesser note, the top-heavy use of quotation marks is a major distraction.) It is, certainly, a book that commands attention - sometimes hard to put down, but, having done so, equally hard to pick up again, fearful of what the next enormity will prove to be. A more balanced, less hostile assessment of this complex, intriguing personality - a fantastically great writer, although that particular point is scarcely touched upon, and a polemicist almost the equal of Dr Sullivan himself - is still awaited.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Chris_NDUVA on January 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Much like Conor Cruise O'Brien's study of Burke ("The Great Melody"), this book is more than a biography of an important Englishman, but a biographical case study of ideas. Thomas Babington Macaulay is best known today as the nineteenth-century popularizer of English history in the form of "progress." But the nationalistic progress that Macaulay envisioned and championed dehumanized the "other" (whether in Ireland or in India) and justified the bloody subjugation of English subjects. This study persuasively and perceptively argues that Macaulay's vision of "progress" was rooted in his religious skepticism and in his desire to supplant that skepticism with progress's certitude. I highly recommend this wide-ranging study of the ideas that continue to shape our world. It is meticulously researched and eloquently written; the author's wit and erudition shine through to provide insights well beyond telling the life story of Macaulay.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Joseph M. Hennessey on August 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is often said that a biographer has to have great sympathy for his/her subject to write a good biography; this book is an exception to the rule.

One of the best features of Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power, as with many biographies, is that the reader feels as if he knows much more about the era of the biograph-ed (here, English politics in the first half of the 19th century) as well as the details of the subject's life-history.

Professor Sullivan takes a particularly dim view of Macaulay's intervention in Indian and Irish politics, being as he was the paradigm of a British Imperialist. About the best Sullivan could compliment Macaulay on was his high intelligence, and persuasive writing skill, especially in his history of 17th and 18th century England.

Another reviewer states that Sullivan "accused" Macaulay of incest. Sullivan did not accuse (how could he, he was not there?), but implies it, based on plenty of written evidence. On another 'social' matter, Sullivan does not investigate why Macaulay determined so early in his life that he would not be married, with no implication regarding his sexuality?

For me, as with most books i enjoy, one of the best features of Macaulay is its bibliography and footnotes, which led me to other books i know i would enjoy.

In conclusion, it is sad that Macaulay reacted so negatively toward his religious father. As Sullivan states on p. 460, Macaulay was above all "self-absorbed," and the ex-stasis, the exstasy of Christian faith would have had a salutary effect on him.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By ROROTOKO on February 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"Macaulay" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Sullivan's book interview ran here as the cover feature on January 29, 2010.
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Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power
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