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The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence Hardcover – May 6, 2014
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[Bromwich] gives us a figure who may be unknown to readers familiar with Burke only from ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ or his reputation as modern conservatism’s founding father. Bromwich’s Burke is one for whom ‘ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct.’ Burke is moved more by a universal sympathy for human struggle than by religion or patriotism… Though his attention throughout is on Burke’s moral psychology, Bromwich also highlights the literary character of his thought, including his debts to Milton and Shakespeare… In Burke’s politics there was room alike for elite rule and street demonstrations of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street variety. This balance of familiar and strange, Burke’s enlightened humanity and his intricate understanding of power, make him well deserving of the extensive treatment he has lately received―and especially of the justice David Bromwich has rendered him in showing Edmund Burke in the most unexpected of lights. (Daniel McCarthy New York Times Book Review 2014-08-22)
It is David Bromwich’s aim in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke that people should know a good deal more about what Burke actually said and wrote…Bromwich’s patient and subtle exposition is a continuing delight. After reading this first volume, several major misreadings of Burke and a more general ignorance of his arguments and actions will not be possible, or at any rate won’t be legitimate…The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is both indispensable and unputdownable, and with its companion volume will surely form a lasting landmark. (Ferdinand Mount London Review of Books 2014-08-21)
[A] recent biographer of Burke calls him the father of conservatism. So a reappraisal of his early works is welcome. David Bromwich, a professor at Yale University, has written a history of Burke’s thought until American independence; a more liberal Burke emerges from this book…Burke continued to fight for liberty later
on in life. He backed Americans in their campaign for freedom from British taxation. He supported Catholic freedoms and freer trade with Ireland, in spite of his constituents’ ire. He wanted more liberal laws on the punishment of debtors. He even pushed to curb the slave trade in 1780, a quarter of a century before it was abolished.
In The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, David Bromwich sets aside the conventional views of Burke―the eloquent opponent of radical ideology―to track the formation of his outlook and explore his early career… The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke most of all reminds us that Burke’s understanding of the moral psychology guiding politics sprang from his engagement with both ideas and practical questions. Certainly a better grasp of Burke’s early thought and the political turmoil of his time will prepare us for a fuller understanding of his response to the dramatic events of the late 18th century―not least, the outbreak of the revolution in France and the implications Burke saw for England and for liberty itself. (William Anthony Hay Wall Street Journal 2014-06-01)
Magnificent…Bromwich masters and then mines [the copious private correspondence] with a degree of skill and discrimination I haven’t seen in a Burkean study since the late 1970s…The sheer, marvelous plenitude of the material Bromwich brings into his narrative quickly broadens the story to take in the full ambit of Burke’s public intellectualism…Bromwich thoroughly understands how clearly the man is revealed in his writing, and one of the greatest pleasures in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is the regularity with which we get chunks of Burke’s own intensely good prose. The man was a tireless student of human nature and one of the sharpest observers of man the political animal since Tacitus. And his descriptions of political creatures are uniformly so perceptive that any 21st century [reader] will find them instantly recognizable…Bromwich might not be doing the standard finances-and-family run-through of a biography, but he nevertheless ends up painting as vivid a personal portrait as any biography-reader could want…[An] irreplaceable study, which inadvertently underscores the disquieting extent to which we are all living in a political continuum of Burke’s shaping. When this volume is completed by its sequel, we’ll have a benchmark of Burke studies fit to last a century. (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly 2014-04-17)
All good biographies are called magisterial, but David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence actually merits the adjective. Edmund Burke was a rare figure: a working politician who was also one of the great thinkers of his, or any, time… Bromwich’s book, the first in a two-part biography, does justice to both the politics and the thought, showing how Burke’s principles―a hatred of violence and a love of liberty―emerged from political and historical circumstances. Meticulous in its research and elegant in style, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is a masterpiece of intellectual history. (Anthony Domestico Christian Science Monitor 2014-05-29)
Magisterial… It is the best in-depth, comprehensive recent analysis of Burke’s thought―plus it is an enjoyable read… Bromwich’s work reveals a Burke who is politically principled and (more or less) philosophically consistent, but who does not conform conveniently to our present-day conceptions of right or left. (Drew Maciag Chronicle of Higher Education 2014-05-05)
Probing and subtle…Helps us glimpse the sources of Burke’s surprising longevity… Bromwich’s Burke is not the evasive pragmatist who has been conscripted as the founding father of conservatism… Bromwich’s biography promises to be the fullest and most responsibly sensitive account of both Burke’s consistency and his ductility that we will ever have. (David Womersley Standpoint 2014-07-01)
Drawing on Burke’s correspondence, as well as his public writings and speeches, Bromwich presents the portrait of a serious thinker who cannot be easily categorized as either conservative or liberal--Burke spoke out about abuse of power, even supporting the American colonies, yet at times seemed to distrust democracy…Bromwich has brought his considerable research and writing skills together to present a readable, thorough picture of Burke’s earlier years. (Nancy R. Ives Library Journal 2014-04-15)
Edmund Burke was famed for weaving into arguments like a serpent; David Bromwich displays equal finesse, skill, and relentlessness in moving through the complexities and sheer volume of Burke's writings. The drive, fluency, and intelligence of Bromwich's analysis allow the reader to see Burke as that rare animal, a prime thinker who was also a practicing politician, a man caught up in a time when both varieties of democracy and new forms of empire were violently and contentiously on the rise. (Linda Colley, author of The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History)
About the Author
David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.
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Bromwich presents Burke’s life, not as a conventional biography but rather as a chronological, historically based review of Burke’s thought as recorded in his writings. (While much of Bromwich’s book is analysis of Burke’s speeches, as Bromwich notes, these have been recorded in written form and published after the fact.) The title correctly says exactly what this is: a book on Edmund Burke’s INTELLECTUAL life. There is almost nothing in here about his private life, friends, family, or what he did in his spare time. Rather, it is a review of his ideas as presented in his writings beginning with Burke’s first book on the Sublime and Beautiful through his speech to his Bristol constituents shortly before he was essentially voted out of office for being unwilling to follow their mandates against his own moral judgment.
What makes Bromwich’s presentation so brilliant is that the vast majority of the book is in Burke’s own words, not Bromwich’s. Nevertheless it is Bromwich who has restructured Burke’s words and explicated them in a way that both makes Burkes ideas and thoughts much clearer and, to this 21st century reader, much more readable and interesting than the originals at least to me. Bromwich is simply a brilliant writer and while, as I said, much of the book is direct quotation, it is less the subject matter of the book that makes this book great than it is Bromwich’s organization and how he uses Burke’s words.
I highly recommend this to any thinking reader and particularly to anyone interested in political philosophy and the organization of government, regardless of your own personal views. You may find you disagree with much of Burke’s thought; certainly I still do. But you will nevertheless experience a very fine enjoyable conversation with one of history’s great thinkers and writers. I for one very much look forward to the concluding volume of Bromwich’s study.
Michael H. Friedman