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Not for intellectually serious readers
on January 27, 2017
In his book, Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City, Stephane Kirkland argues that the history of the transformation of Paris under Baron Haussmann cannot be understood without including Napoleon III in the narrative. To Kirkland, Haussmann is too often viewed as the beginning and end of Paris’s urban reforms. Further, Kirkland does not see the transformation of Paris as a fundamentally positive thing. He instead argues that the re-development of Paris was “a heavy-handed enterprise, which achieved its ends at tremendous human and cultural cost and wiped from the map an old, much-loved Paris that we will never know” (2).
Lastly, Kirkland argues that, under the Second Empire, Paris became a monument itself. While past rulers and legislatures had erected numerous monuments throughout the city, Napoleon III and Haussmann intended for Paris to be a monument to global humanism. While he decries Napoleon III’s iron fist, much of this book simply consists of Kirkland saying how much he loves the beauty of Paris. For good measure, Kirkland compares late nineteenth-century Paris to late nineteenth-century New York in order to illustrate how Paris was so perfect that Americans could not successfully emulate it.
While this book is informative, it is not suitable for academics. Instead, it is a work aimed for a general public that is interested in the history of Paris. While the writing is easy to follow, it is not very good. When discussing the newly installed emperor’s designs on France, Kirkland writes, “In early 1853, no one yet knew what to expect from the reign of this newly installed emperor. One of the first things he did was unexpected: He got married” (52). It is true that this is an interesting biographical fact, but the author does not execute it well.
Worse, the author’s use of sources are very slim and he gives little reference to other histories of Paris—within the academy or without. When there are citations, the reader is left wondering why Kirkland would choose those sources. For example, the author has six citations in the first chapter. Of them, four are directly quoted from Voltaire and one points to a biography of Voltaire that was written in 1867. Recent secondary sources are uncommon. Moreover, there is scarcely an introduction or a conclusion to his work. While there are chapters that function in this role, they do not add anything meaningful to his text.
While this book will work fine for someone who wants a light read about the emergence of Paris as we know it today, it should not be seen as a serious work of scholarship.