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Thoughts of A Certain Bibliophile

If you thought that the Dreyfus Affair was the fons et origo of anti-Semitism in France, or that the Kulturkampf was just a phenomenon relegated to Bismarck’s imperial Germany, this book may just very well be the place to begin a solid education in late nineteenth-century French cultural history. Brown assumes a minimal knowledge of the politics of the time (First Empire, Second Republic, Third Empire, et cetera), but provides a useful chronology at the beginning of the book and adds just enough political background to keep the narrative both clear and engaging. The use of the words “culture war” in the subtitle is by no means a cynical ploy to attract readers, either. The words and the politics to which they give so theatrical a birth were just as relevant then as they ever have been.


The tug-of-war between Catholicism and the allied forces of modernity, science, and secularism sandwiched between the times of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III dominate the book. Any vignette to begin with would have admittedly been arbitrarily chosen, but Brown’s choice of the 1863 publication of Ernst Renan’s “La Vie de Jesus” (“The Life of Jesus”) serves as a terrific and illustrative point of departure for a book whose major themes include Renan’s strident anti-clericalism. 


Brown also includes a couple of stories that are unfortunately little-known in the United States, but that give hints of the growing violence and division that is to come. He tells of the Union Generale, an investment syndicate launched by aristocratic, pro-Catholic associates that went on to build railroads all over Europe. Due to rampant speculation and financial impropriety on the part of the man who ran the operation, it suffered a tremendous failure – also known as the Paris Bourse crash – in January, 1882. Perhaps not surprisingly considering the events to come, the first people to be blamed were the Jews. We get detailed chapters of the building of the Panama Canal and the 1897 fire at the Charity Bazaar as well, but the heart of the book is a 55-page long chapter on perhaps the one event – or rather a long, complex series of events – that is familiar to all Americans: the Dreyfus Affair. 


Woven together, these bits of history provide one of a few tapestries that really are essential for understanding the French history of this period. For someone unfamiliar with the major names and events, I recommend Robert Gildea’s “Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914,” which provides much of the political background that Brown can’t cover in a brief 265 pages. Brown has a tremendous grasp of the source material. I highly recommend this to readers looking for a great bridge between popular and more formal academic history regarding this period. Reading this makes me want to pick up the Brown’s Flaubert biography that I have on my shelves – or anything else that I can find by him.