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Napoleon: A Political Life Paperback – May 30, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The central question of any study of Napoleon is whether he saved the French Revolution or buried it. Fighting through the tangle of two centuries of interpretation, Englund, who has taught courses on French history at UCLA and elsewhere, defends the French emperor where others criticize him and skewers him where other praise. He draws sufficient comparisons to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great to please Bonaparte himself, but underplays his talent and skill at his early signature victories and questions whether the Directory needed a savior in 1799 when the young general arrived seeking that role. Napoleon emerges from this study not as a great leader but as a lucky one. If he was not a great tactician, then he was simply the right man for his time: decisive, flexible, inspiring; idealistic yet pragmatic; equipped to be the modern leader with the education of the aristocrat but the spirit of the common man. Readers who are not already steeped in the Napoleonic era may struggle to follow the narrative of events. Englund (The Inquisition in Hollywood, etc.) slips forward and back chronologically and often uses terms and names before he has introduced them or neglects to identify them at all. When he is interested in a particular event or interpretation, he offers a strong reading, as in examinations of Napoleon's popularity with soldiers and the distinctions between Napoleon as first consul and as emperor. Elsewhere, the writing becomes uneven, plagued by shifting tenses, elaborate phrasing and occasional awkward wordplay. Multiple epigrams in each chapter, ranging from the very familiar to the strikingly tangential, become an almost comical commentary on the complexity of reactions to Napoleon and the difficulty of providing a definitive interpretation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Napoleon is most frequently lionized for his military genius; however, he always placed his military talents at the service of his larger political and personal goals. Historian Englund's biography focuses on Bonaparte's political goals, achievements, and methods. Some recent scholarship has emphasized Napoleon's Corsican origins and his supposed lifelong resentment of French arrogance, but Englund asserts that Napoleon was deeply committed to the ideals of the French Revolution, which allowed outsiders like him to rise as far as their talents could take them. Despite his later efforts to create a family dynasty based upon considerable political repression, Napoleon, Englund insists, remained devoted to many liberal, republican ideals. Englund is an excellent writer whose vivid prose brings the man and his times to life. Although his admiration for his subject seems to lead him to de-emphasize Napoleon's egotism and cynicism, this is still a valuable addition to our knowledge of one of the most compelling personalities in history. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 600 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018036
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018037
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,010,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Sean Brocklebank on April 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I came to this book thinking that it would focus entirely on the political dimension of Napoleon's life. This is not the case. Napoleon: A Political Life might exclude the word 'political' from its title and be just as fitting, for Englund spends a great deal of time on Napoleon's relations with Josephine, his brothers, the exiles, etc.. In fact, in the introduction (at the end of the book), Englund states that he almost subtitled the book "Empire of Circumstance."

The great strength of the book is its writing style. Englund really captures the drama of the Little Corsican's life, and he sweeps the reader up in it. All of the politics of Napoleon's life is, as you would expect, well covered, but so is his personal and military life. Never did I feel overburdened with detail, and never was the text wanting for humour.

There is, however, some merit in the argument posted by some of the other reviewers that the book assumes too much in the way of background knowledge. This is not an introduction to Napoleon for the novice. While I would not go so far as to say that you need have already read another book on Napoleon to enjoy Englund's work, you should certainly have a reasonable idea of the political zeitgeist he worked in, particularly the French revolution and the foreign (especially British) reaction to it. Ideally, you should also have taken a course in French at some point in your life (and not completely forgotten it). Englund has a somewhat irritating habit of dropping les mots francais at random, and often without translation (although most of the more important French phrases are translated, most of the minor ones are not). C'est la vie.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Steven Englund's Napoleon: A Political Life (available in paperback from Harvard) is a book that should satisfy both the interested lay reader and the professional historian.

It will satisfy the lay person because it tells a fascinating story about one of history's most interesting and influential human beings, and it tells it exceptionally well. In the process, the reader will gain insights into how a topflight scholar advances his or her field of knowledge.

It will please academics because Englund presents a nuanced revision of the current myths about Napoleon, who, after two hundred years, still stirs passions among his admirers and detractors as though he were living today. The author focuses on Napoleon's evolving political thought and strategy and how his contemporaries actually responded to him, not how we wished they had responded to him. A virtue is that Englund avoids smoothing out Napoleon's past choices and actions through hindsight: Englund emphasizes that actual history is messy; it doesn't come in tidy packages.

The greatest of men, the very few like Napoleon, leave behind an altered world. Englund draws on Christian Meier's masterful biography of Caesar. He frequently compares Napoleon to Caesar, but Napoleon left behind many more permanent structures in France and across Europe thna Caesar did Rome: law code, a system to govern the localities from the center, the Legion of Honor, and in Paris, monuments and buildings and sewer system and roads.

People who won't like the book will most likely object to two things.

(1) It's not a history primer. Englund assumes the reader is conversant with eighteenth-century history history though not at the level of the professional historian.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Joshua Keyes on February 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Breaking from the common theme of Napoleonic biographies, Englund ditches miltary strategy, tactics and love affairs, preferring to focus on the political man behind the throne. For Englund, Napoleon is not the idealistic conqueror, but neither is he the tyrannical imperialist. He is, instead, a work in progress, influenced and shaped not only by philosophers like Rousseau and political figures like Paoli and Robespierre, but also by the turbulent events through which he lived. Englund does a great job of illustrating Napoleon's transition from a young, impressionable patriot and idealist, into a pragmatic and efficient ruler, a product of his many influences and encounters.
While exposing many of Napoleon's faults as a ruler, Englund makes no qualms about also recognizing the successes he achieved, first as consul, and later as Emperor. The end result seems to cover both viewpoints effectively. All the better is that Napoleon becomes "human," and like all of us, he has his triumphs and his faults. While one can easily want to yell at the dead Emperor for his persistent antagonizing of the European continent, one can also see him as a man who feels as though he carried the weight of France on his shoulders, and his alone. Englund does a fantastic job attempting to balance the pro/con approaches to Napoleonic study. Great read. Definitely worth checking out for anyone wanting a fresh look at l'Empereur.
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on March 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Well, no, not exactly. But this is certainly the most positive recent biography of the Emperor, many of which compare him to Hitler. Steven Englund's new work is a not altogether satisfactory hybrid. On the one hand it is well aware of recent scholarship and frequently refers to it in the notes. On the other hand it is less detailed and less informative than one might expect. Ian Kershaw devoted 1,400 pages of text to Hitler, not counting notes. By contrast Englund devotes about 475 pages and here less is less. Compared to recent biographies such as Paul Preston's Franco, Richard Bosworth's Mussolini or Herbert Bix's Hirohito, this is a less successful book. Another problem lies in its basic thesis. It is complex: Napoleon was a vain man who lusted for military glory and who ultimately failed because he refused to compromise at key points in his reign. But at the same time he was also the advocate of a vaguely progressive reform (which in my view seems to get vaguer as time goes on). The problem with this thesis is not that it is untrue. Indeed it is basically true. But it is poorly presented and argued, with certain lacunae on the way and a certain apologetic tone.
As one reads the book we are reminded of Napoleon's virtues. He was a brilliant general, obviously, such as the quartet of victories he won in five days a few months before his first abdication. He was capable of genuine love (unlike Mussolini and Hitler). He was willing to listen to the advice of people who disagreed with him, he was capable of being calm and reasonable towards people who had crossed him. (Indeed one future conspirator was automatically promoted to general while imprisoned for another plot.
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