Reviews: Books of General Interest


Napoleon

Alexander, R. S., Napoleon "Reputations Series," (London: Arnold, 2001; co-published in the USA in New York by Oxford University Press, 2001.) 273 pages. ISBN 0340719168.† $19.95 Paperback (also available in hardback).

Regardless of one's special interests within the Napoleonic field, Napoleon's reputation plays a very significant role. It would be a rare student of Napoleonic history who has never been placed in the position of taking sides and elaborating on opinions concerning Napoleon's weaknesses or strengths. The bottom line, it would seem of practically all Napoleonic studies, must be his reputation -- surely a key factor to the relevancy of each of our own studies. This volume in the "Reputations" series is an intriguing addition to the scholarship of Napoleon's image, and therefore of his legacy. The most important attribute of this volume is that it seems to be totally balanced with equal treatment to the pros and cons of Napoleon's reputation.

R. S. Alexander, Associate Professor of History at University of Victoria, Canada, explains that this is not a biography or a study of the era, but an analysis of the development of Napoleon's reputation. This work will serve equally well as both an important piece in a Napoleonic library and as an excellent college textbook. Prepare to write in the margins or on notepaper, because it contains many new revelations and fresh connecting-of-the-dots information, even for those of us who have been studying Napoleon for decades.

Along with his faculty bio on his university's web site (http://web.uvic.ca/history/), Professor Alexander has a message to his students: "...history is a discipline wherein theories must be tested against evidence of human behavior (which includes both what people said and what they actually did)." He continues, saying, "In particular I am fascinated by how change came about: what did people want? how did they go about getting it? and how successful were they in achieving their objectives?" After reading this book, I envied the students who have him for classes in the Early Modern and Modern France.

He covers Napoleon's image, created during Napoleon's life up to present day, in eight chapters. Fortunately, the endnotes are at the end of each chapter, because I found myself often referring to them. A unique feature for a Napoleonic study is his chronology "of the principal events and works discussed" with half of it covering the years following Napoleon's death. There is also a select bibliography organized by general works followed by chapter references.

A review of the contents reveals that we're not sitting down with a traditional work. The opening chapter, "The Life and Times," is followed by: Heir of the Revolution? Napoleon and the French Left prior to World War One; Napoleon and the Nineteenth-century Right: The Great Commander and the Man on Horseback; Prototype for Hitler and Mussolini? Napoleon and Fascism; The Great Man: Napoleon in nineteenth-century literature and art; The people's choice? Napoleon and popular culture; The Great Man meets the twentieth century; Napoleon and Europe: conqueror or unifier?

Professor Alexander traces the role that painters, poets, filmmakers and authors of plays and books have had on the creation of our images of Napoleon.† He deals with both extremes of the Napoleonic image, from Popular Bonapartism to the Black Legend.† We see how Napoleon, no stranger to the uses of propaganda, realized that he sat on a very visible public stage while on St. Helena and "duly set about exploiting public fascination, and a steady stream of intimate details has issued ever since. In this sense, he was the first media 'star'" writes Professor Alexander.

The author covers the role played by memorabilia, Napoleon's devotion to his troops and the impact that veterans had as storytellers. His nickname of the 'Little Corporal' played a role in his image among his troops and the people. Professor Alexander discusses Napoleonís popularity in America and details how twentieth century dictators injured the Napoleonic reputation.

We see how the Second Restoration tried to manage the Napoleonic reputation following Napoleon's abdication to St. Helena, the impact of Louis-Napoleon, how Napoleon's image faired in other countries, and how his image was affected by the two world wars.† Professor Alexander explains the events since Napoleon's death that have contributed to both pro and con arguments.

Some highlights of his findings include:

- The Napoleonic model "required both military and political talent," he writes, stating that there is "little room for serious debate over whether he was talented."

- "Napoleonic rule was 'one person' rather than 'one party' in nature," he writes.

- "There is a place for the Ogre in Napoleon's reputation, and at times circumstance† will give it preponderance," he writes. "Yet there also remains a place for Napoleon as 'son of the Revolution', albeit a prodigal one."

- "When all is said and done, Napoleon has come to stand for what can be done by an individual through application of will."

- "Napoleon emerges as a Unifier through his promotion of the modern state outside France, but his role as Conqueror refuses simply to wither away," he writes, arguing that the leading Napoleonic legacy is the modern state.

Professor Alexander states in his conclusion: "Napoleon's reputation remains beyond good and evil, and he can be portrayed either as a great hero or great villain. That his claims to greatness continue to provoke such strong responses assures that the reputation remains vibrant, and for Napoleon this is the greatest of all achievements."

Professor Alexander, who earned his Ph.D. at University of Cambridge in 1987, is also the author of Bonapartism and Revolutionary Tradition in France (1991), a chapter in P. Pilbeam's Themes in Modern European History, 1780-1830 (1995) and articles in French History and Modern and Contemporary France.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Vance
March 2002

 

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