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Simon Bolivar: A Life

3.9 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300110623
ISBN-10: 0300110626
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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

The first major English biography of Bolívar in fifty years parses the complex history of the Venezuelan aristocrat who liberated six South American countries from Spanish rule. A cult figure after his death, in 1830, El Libertador led a life that defies easy analysis: although influenced by Enlightenment ideas of equality, he rejected total democracy, fearing anarchy in the "ignorant" lower classes; determined to create strong central government, he institutionalized rule by local warlords; acutely aware of the factionalism rampant in postwar society, he was bewildered when it eventually forced him to leave his homeland. In Lynch's view, the key to Bolívar lies in his pragmatism. Leaders who have invoked his name to serve their political agendas have obscured the fact that his policies followed no single path and are meaningless out of historical context. The so-called "Bolivarian revolution" of the populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is "a modern perversion of the cult."
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From Booklist

Bolivar is often referred to as the George Washington of South America, but that designation can be considered somewhat of a slight, for Bolivar was an original, not an imitator, a singular man who understood the cultural, historical, and physical differences between liberating the Spanish colonies of South America and the conditions faced by Washington in the English colonies of North America. This definitive biography, based on fresh and copious research, achieves a complete picture of Bolivar's thinking, actions, and impact. Lynch, professor of Latin American history at the University of London, in his all-inclusive approach to estimating the man brings to the fore two aspects of Bolivar's life and career that may come as a surprise to readers with little background: his extensive visits to Europe (and what ideas he picked up there) and the fact that his military campaigns (presented in considerable detail) to free South America represented not a clean trajectory of success but, rather, a series of setbacks as well as successes. In all, a major biography. Brad Hooper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (June 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300110626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300110623
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #981,336 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a novice regarding South American history, though Simon Bolivar has always interested me. A trip to Ecuador, where I saw one of the Liberator's swords in Quito, further spurred my curiosity about him. For those who don't know, Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) was the George Washington of South America, a general who liberated Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Ecuador from Spanish rule. The country of Bolivia, which became a test case in the 1820s for Bolivar's constitutional ideas, is named after him.

Unfortunately, books about the general (and later president) are hard to find in the States. The most popular is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "The General in His Labyrinth," which explored Bolivar's last, frustrated days. In the novel, "El Liberator" is succumbing to consumption and curses the Revolution he had unleashed. No English biography of Bolivar has been written in 50 years. To fill the gap in Bolivar historiography, John Lynch, an Emeritus professor of Latin American history at University of London, has produced a solid work of scholarship. His likely audience for this book would be graduate students about to study for their comprehensive exams or people who are somewhat familiar with Bolivar's accomplishments.

Lynch's book is informative, but isn't as easy to read as some biographies are, such as David McCullough's "John Adams." "Simon Bolivar: A Life" doesn't begin with Bolivar's birth, but an earthquake that rocked Venezuela (place of SB's birth) in 1812. The earthquake was seen by some royalist clergymen as divine punishment for Venezuelans revolting against the Spanish. Lynch's book is relatively brief (300 pages), but dense. One will not find short, reader-friendly paragraphs in these pages. The author does not write for a popular audience, but a learned one.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Above all, Bolivar thought of himself as a soldier, which makes it very strange that Professor Lynch provides virtually no discussion of this aspect of Bolivar's life. There are some aspects of grand strategy, such as the discussion of Bolivar's decision to liberate Venezuela by moving to Columbia (New Granada) and invading from the southwest. But there is nothing about how Bolivar conducted himself in a battle, nothing about his tactics, his command of logistics. You will not find out anything about the character of his army -- what weapons? what balance of cavalry and infantry? And how about a little detail about the Bolivar's famous crossing of the Andes, memorialized in Napoleon-style paintings?

At one point, Professor Lynch disposes of a complete campaign by simply listing the names of seven battles -- nothing more!

I will echo some other reviewers by saying that Lynch does a good job of evaluating Bolivar's philosophy and exploring the political, social and economic milieu in which he operated. But the neglect of a central element of Bolivar's life means that his biography is incomplete.

I would consider this a good supplementary study after reading a comprehensive biography of the Liberator.

A note about maps: The maps are inadequate; two simple line drawings of nothern South America and the continent as whole, with national boundaries, cities and major rivers -- nothing more. They illustrate nothing about the topography in which Bolivar operated. The geography of northern South America played a critical role not only in his military campaigns but also in the politics and economics of the region -- the presence of the Andes in itself doomed his project to unite New Granda (present Columbia), Venezuela and Ecuador in a grand republic of Columbia. The publisher should have invested enough to show the location of the Andes at least!
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Format: Hardcover
This is the first English language biography of Bolivar in approximately 50 years. It is based on a great deal of modern scholarship and authored by a recognized expert on early 19th century Latin America. It is thoughtful and thorough. It is, unfortunately, a somewhat frustrating book. Lynch is a competent, as opposed to good, writer. The narrative tends to skip around a bit and parts are repetitive. Lynch seems also to have had his fellow scholars in mind as the target of this book. The text seems to presuppose a fair prior knowledge of 19th century Latin American history. In several respects, this book seems to be essentially a summary of modern scholarship on Bolivar rather than a full fledged interpretative biography.

Within these limitations, this is a useful book. Lynch does an excellent job of describing Bolivar's complex personality. Lynch emphasizes the continuity in Bolivar's motivations and thinking throughout his career. The product of an elite Venezualan creole family, Bolivar grew up to espouse a complex mixture of idealistic Enlightenment rationalism and romantic nationalism leavened by a healthy dose of pragmatism. His pursuit of personal glory seems also to have a major factor in his incessant pursuit of freedom from Spain. Lynch does well also in describing the highly adverse conditions under which Bolivar pursued his aims. A major theme of the book is the frustration of Bolivar's Enlightenment reformism by the actions of the native elites he set in power and general weakness of civil society in early 19th century South America.

A useful book but one which underscores the need for a major biography.
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