Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon: The Path to Power the first volume of an extended biography of Napoleon Bonaparte will be appreciated by readers familiar with the Napoleonic saga as well as by those encountering the life of the great conqueror for the first time. Although Dwyer is a distinguished scholar and an expert on the Napoleonic period, and the book, published by Yale University Press, is intensively researched and heavily footnoted, Dwyer’s vigorous prose transcends the merely academic. He has managed the difficult feat of having something new to say about one of the most familiar stories in modern history.
Bonaparte has been the subject of countless studies since his famous final defeat at Waterloo. The record of his spectacular rise and fall is inherently dramatic. In the midst of an age of revolution, when aristocracy was slowly being supplanted by liberalism and a rising bourgeoisie, Bonaparte was the ultimate self-made man. He came from obscurity to dominate the continent of Europe as the ruler of a new French Empire. Though a thoroughgoing tyrant, his ascendancy spread the French Revolution’s ideal of equality before the law. While most of Europe eventually rebelled against his quest for power, he was for a time seen by many as a shining avatar of progress. Bonaparte achieved all this through a record of military success that earned him a place with the greatest leaders of history. He developed an unparalleled facility in maneuvering his troops, rapidly concentrating overwhelming force on a point of enemy weakness. His speed and tactical aggressiveness seemed brilliantly innovative compared to the more stately rhythms of eighteenth century warfare. Building on the individual initiative and ideological fervor fostered in the citizen armies of the French Revolution, he cultivated a special bond with his soldiers, enabling him to demand more of them than could other commanders of his day. So superlative were Bonaparte’s martial gifts that from early in his career he was universally regarded as a military genius.
Bonaparte was fortunate to win this reputation at the height of the Romantic movement. As a supremely gifted individualist, he fit the pattern of the Romantic hero, struggling to express his superior gifts in a sea of mediocrity. His final defeat ironically sealed his authenticity as a Romantic hero, leaving him unbowed and defiant despite rejection and misunderstanding. He is the very model of a “great man” attempting to bend history to his will. Bonaparte forced himself on the imagination of his contemporaries, and his life has never lost its fascination.
Dwyer’s contribution to this vast Napoleonic literature provides a penetrating analysis of Bonaparte’s evolving sense of self and his active contribution to the growth of his own legend. Dwyer does not see Bonaparte as the Romantic hero out of step with his inadequate times. Instead, he portrays Bonaparte as a work in progress: as a youth, torn between his Corsican homeland and an adoptive French identity; as a young man, trying to balance enthusiasm for the French Revolution with an innate desire for order. Bonaparte evolved through trial and error, and though his course was often diverted by personal disasters and sometimes propelled to success by strokes of luck, he displayed a growing adaptability and egotism. As he shed old enthusiasms and ideals, his interest and energies became increasingly focused on what was left: himself. Dwyer ends this first installment of his biography with the 1799 military coup through which Bonaparte seized power in France. By this point in his life, just past the age of thirty, the Bonaparte of legend was taking shape. Already an ambitious and cynical opportunist, he was confident enough in his abilities to challenge fate and grasp the reins of power. Facilitating his rise was an instinctive gift for self-promotion. The young Bonaparte was an indefatigable networker, ever on the alert for a connection that could prove useful. Early in his career as an army commander, he grasped the propagandistic power of the media, carefully managing his image. In his dispatches back to France, he shamelessly lied about his reverses and exaggerated his successes. Bonaparte skillfully manipulated the newspapers, even starting some of his own to sing his praises. He encouraged a proliferation of portraits and prints of himself and his exploits to reach a nonliterate audience and to help make him a hero in France. One of the strengths that Dwyer brings to his biography is a mastery of the organs of late eighteenth century French popular culture that helped lay the ideological foundations of Bonaparte’s dictatorship.
Dwyer devotes a great deal of attention to Bonaparte’s Corsican roots. Corsica was a Mediterranean island that had long been loosely governed by the Italian mercantile republic of Genoa. In the 1760’s France established control over the island, and...
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