RayAlexander on Beecher (2021)
Beecher, Jonathan. Writers and Revolution: Intellectuals and the French Revolution of 1848. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021, pp. xx + 474, ISBN: 9781108842532
In Writers and Revolution, historian Jonathan Beecher examines the ways in which nine contemporary nineteenth-century intellectuals understood the inspirations, ideals, hopes, illusions, ironies, and failures of the French revolutionary year of 1848. The following writers receive chapter-length studies: Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, Marie d’Agoult, Victor Hugo, Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, and Gustave Flaubert. Ranging from elected leaders to passive observers, all of these figures wrote about the events and impact of 1848. Each writer was also personally affected by 1848. While many withdrew or went into exile, others were imprisoned or silenced by other means. Despite their diverse perspectives and political stances, these figures nonetheless crossed paths physically and intellectually in surprising ways. By interlacing their histories, novels, poetry, essays, plays, memoirs, journalism, speeches, commentaries, correspondence, diaries, notebooks, calendars, daily jottings, notes, etc., Beecher presents a historical investigation of the contemporary view of 1848 as a multi-faceted failure. His work also emerges as “an exercise in comparative storytelling” (xii) as it explores how these writers tried to make sense of their time’s extraordinary events.
Each writer’s distinct framing of 1848 allows Beecher to consider different aspects of this revolutionary year through varied political perspectives. His meticulous research further illuminates the discrepancies among the various writers’ portrayals of 1848 and their often divergent public and private statements. Moreover, Beecher traces recurring themes and literary devices throughout these works, like the widespread use of theatrical language to describe this historical moment. Beecher’s skillful interweaving of these figures and their evolving narratives reveals the subtle lines that divided France’s political factions in 1848.
Beecher’s analysis also offers a critical appraisal of how nineteenth-century intellectuals constructed historical narratives of 1848. For example, he describes Lamartine’s “first major history of 1848” (71), as “a self-congratulatory memoir” (72). He similarly calls Tocqueville’s Souvenirs “a memoir, not a history” (224) and notes that this work passes over the violent June suppression in silence. By contrast, Beecher’s praise of d’Agoult’s history of 1848 can also very aptly be applied to his own study: “She shared […] the belief that the principal task of the historian is to put engaging pictures of the past before readers—not only to represent the past but also to recreate it, to make it alive” (154). By retracing these writers’ steps on the most pivotal days of 1848 as well as their lives before and after this year, Beecher offers a captivating depiction of the period that is not only vivid but also panoramic and profound.
Following an analysis of Tocqueville’s critique of “the corrosive influence of the intrusion of the literary spirit in politics” (230), Beecher compares how writers like Sand and Hugo engaged in the political sphere. In his treatment of Sand, who was accused of inspiring insurrection and believed the Second Republic could eradicate class distinctions, Beecher emphasizes how le peuple was (mis)understood by well-meaning contemporary intellectuals. Like many of her contemporaries, Sand looks back on some of her views in 1848 as illusory. On the other hand, after helping suppress the June insurrection, Hugo “was both energized and radicalized by his experience of politics during the Second Republic” (167). According to Beecher, Hugo’s response differed drastically from those who subsequently lost faith in politics, precisely because his initial expectations of the Second Republic were comparatively low. His sights were instead set on a future republic’s ideals: “A republic, he added, ‘will be a crown for our white hair’” (170).
Some of the writers and intellectuals studied in the book aim to disabuse readers of their revolutionary illusions beyond the French context. Following his own disenchantment with 1848, Herzen sought a new “perspective from which the collapse of his (and Europe’s) pre-revolutionary ideals and dreams might make sense” (306), for Russian readers as well. Beecher clarifies how Herzen’s memoirs aimed for the “destruction of old illusions” that prevented “radicals of his generation [from acting] effectively in the world” (304). Beecher’s analysis of Marx’s biography and rhetoric buttresses a helpful overview of the ramifications of Paris’s 1848 and how its effects were felt in workers’ revolts throughout Europe. By engaging with tensions and paradoxes within and among Marx’s major works on 1848 and 1852, Beecher illuminates both the evolution of Marxist thought and an aim he shared with Herzen: “Marx saw himself as a destroyer of illusions” (363).
Proudhon’s focus on the working class, as well as his argument that property is theft, starkly contrast with the principal aims of more conservative or moderate republicans like Tocqueville and Lamartine. Proudhon’s disappointment with 1848 manifests in his explicitly autobiographical work written in prison. Beecher draws particular attention to the ways in which that autobiography culminates in an “extraordinary celebration of irony as ‘true liberty’” (271). Despite being a passive witness to 1848, Flaubert shared Proudhon’s appreciation for irony. Beecher’s close reading of L’Éducation sentimentale shows how Flaubert both “writes history through fiction” (382; relying heavily on d’Agoult’s history) and how he crafts reciprocal and biting allegorical scenes to critique the “zealots of the Right and the Left” alike (395). For Beecher, the climactic death in Flaubert’s novel “marks the liquidation of the political hopes and ideals of the republicans, democrats, and socialists of 1848” (397).
Whether treating fictional or eyewitness accounts, Beecher masterfully curates and examines striking scenes to bring the story of 1848 to life for modern readers. This book also boasts a helpful timeline and glossary, as well as images and caricatures that further facilitate and enhance the reading experience. Beecher’s work will be of great interest and utility to specialists and novices alike, and its chapters can be taken in isolation, making its pedagogical promise manifold. Finally, Writers and Revolution helps its readers reconsider a question that remains crucial in today’s landscape of political disillusionment and failure: “When, and how, would the people be able to govern themselves?” (446).