Syme’s stated goal in Garibaldi was to write an accessible, short biography for a reader who “wants to find out what happened” to the Italian patriot and to avoid “subjective speculation.” At the same time, Syme also hoped to avoid “the condensation of Garibaldi’s own life into a dry and colorless catalogue of historical facts.” The finished book lives up to this double promise and has gracefully withstood the test of time since its first publication.
Garibaldi himself enters this biography both through authorial description and in his own letters, from which Syme quotes intelligently and selectively (but which are not referenced in this footnote-free book). Thus, Garibaldi’s growth from an impatient young man ready to depose an aged, bumbling, and vindictive old king is well described. Once Garibaldi has become a mature fighter, whose political passion is coupled with enough pragmatism to bring him to offer his services to the newly crowned and good-natured Sardinian king Victor Emmanuel, the reader has gained a believable insight into the full complexity of Garibaldi’s personality.
Nevertheless, some readers may wish for a bit more fleshing out of crucial scenes in Garibaldi’s life. When he enters the jungles of South America to defend the country of Uruguay, it is not merely the results of the skirmishes—the exact number of the captured enemy guns and ships, for example—that are of interest. Others might also...
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Because it was written for a young audience yet also firmly based on George Macaulay Trevelyan’s definitive, three-volume biography of Garibaldi—Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic (1907), Garibaldi and the Thousand (1909), and Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (1911)—Syme’s Garibaldi is at once very reliable and very accessible. By focusing strictly on Garibaldi himself and refusing to dramatize events beyond what can be ascertained from the sources, Syme has created a narrative that enjoys great textual clarity and places sure emphases on Garibaldi’s achievements.
A young reader who encounters Garibaldi and is captured by the charisma of Syme’s protagonist may feel compelled to search for, and finally fill in, the contextual blanks that Syme’s narrative deliberately leaves open. The comparison of Garibaldi with the men and the women of the American Revolution, only hinted at in Garibaldi, seems an almost inevitable next step. Thus, the message of Garibaldi’s life, finely highlighted by Syme, is that fighting for one’s ideals is worthwhile. This belief, to which Garibaldi dedicated his life, remains of great value.