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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2001

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.

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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 Bonaparte was born there on August 15, 1769, shortly after the French had decisively defeated a Corsican independence movement led by Pasquale Paoli. Bonaparte’s father Carlo fought with Paoli, but after the French victory Carlo promptly accommodated himself to the new regime. The Bonapartes quickly acquired a collaborationist taint, and Bonaparte’s mother Letizia may have even become the mistress of the French governor. Carlo worked assiduously to ingratiate himself with the French authorities in order to secure places for his eight children in the new system. Through his lobbying, he attained scholarships for the eldest to attend exclusive schools in France.

At the age of nine, Bonaparte was enrolled at the military academy of Brienne, a small school of 110 students that prepared young men for service as officers in the army. About half the pupils were scholarship students, most the sons of aristocratic families too poor to afford an education proper for their station in life. The young Bonaparte figured among these. According to the mythic narrative that Bonaparte later encouraged, he was an outcaste at Brienne, routinely persecuted because of his Italian accent. Dwyer is skeptical of these stories. There is no hard evidence that Bonaparte was singled out for mistreatment. What Dwyer finds more significant is the alienation from others that Bonaparte experienced from an early age. An inveterate loner, Bonaparte as a boy felt little loyalty to the monarchy that he was being trained to serve; instead, he identified himself with his Corsican heritage. He revered the freedom fighter Paoli and shed few tears when his hard-working father died young of stomach cancer. Ironically, Bonaparte came to resemble his father in his relentless efforts to advance the fortunes of his many siblings, usurping the role of head of the family that rightfully belonged to his elder brother Joseph. Bonaparte’s devotion to his family, which continued into his days as the emperor of France, would be the last manifestation of the Corsican in him.

Bonaparte was a lieutenant in the artillery when France was engulfed in the revolution that began in 1789. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the revolutionary program, having no attachment to the old regime. In the early years of the revolution, Bonaparte embroiled himself in Corsican politics. He hoped that Corsica could achieve political autonomy in association with France. These hopes seemed within reach when Paoli was allowed to return to his homeland. Unfortunately, Paoli proved to be an autocratic ruler. He disapproved of the increasing radicalism of the French government, and he would never fully trust any member of Carlo’s family. In the end, Bonaparte was forced to flee Corsica with his mother and his siblings. His disillusionment in Corsica helped prepare him for the political shoals that he would be forced to navigate in the coming years.

By the time Bonaparte and his family reached France in 1793, the country was in the grip of revolutionary terror. The king and queen had been executed, a republic declared, and the Jacobins who controlled the government were ruthlessly using the guillotine to consolidate power. In an effort to rally support for the revolution, the government had declared war on the hostile monarchies surrounding France. It also faced insurrections at home, as a large number of French people rose up against the Jacobin ascendancy. Bonaparte went to war for the government, using his skills as an artilleryman to subdue the counterrevolutionary movement in the port of Toulon. Such was his identification with the radicals in Paris that he was briefly arrested when Maximilien Robespierre and his faction of Jacobin leaders were overthrown and guillotined. Bonaparte quickly bounced back, as the Directory, a less bloodthirsty regime, came to power. He benefited from the patronage of a fellow Corsican, Christoforo Saliceti, a government commissioner with the army, and Paul Barras, one of the Directors. He also strengthened his political position by helping thwart a royalist coup attempt in 1795. In March of the next year, he was appointed commander of the army of Italy, charged with bringing some energy to a desultory campaign against the Piedmontese and Austrians.

In Italy Bonaparte came into his own. Up to this point in his career, he had proven himself a capable soldier, but he had not yet demonstrated signs of military greatness. Now, with a significant command of his own, he stunned Europe with a brilliant campaign that over the course of a year and a half established France as the dominant power in Italy. Dwyer traces the course of these battles, but military history is not his chief concern. Instead, he explores the ways in which command and power shaped Bonaparte’s personality. The young general discovered a taste for waging war. Repeated victories enhanced his self-confidence and revealed abilities and qualities in himself that he had not known before. He came to enjoy exercising the power that he had won, and he began wielding an authority in Italy greater than that normally accorded a general. He bought immunity for this by sending to Paris a stream of confiscated gold and art treasures that would later be the glories of French museums. Bonaparte also used the riches that he exacted from the conquered Italians to buy the publicity that made him a hero as well as a victor to the French. His experiences in Corsica and in the revolution had stripped him of idealism. Further souring his mood was the infidelity of his beloved wife Josephine Beauharnais. Bonaparte now saw the world through cold and self-centered eyes. From this point on, he would pursue the power that he treasured with singular determination and ruthlessness.

Bonaparte followed his exploits in Italy with an invasion of Egypt in 1798. This was the linchpin of a grandiose plan to disrupt the growth of the British Empire in India. Bonaparte’s expedition included a large contingent of scholars and scientists, because he wanted to be seen as an apostle of enlightenment and progress as well as a conqueror. Bonaparte won control of Egypt through some initial victories, one glamorously fought in sight of the pyramids. Then his campaign fell apart. The British admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed Bonaparte’s fleet at Aboukir Bay, and Bonaparte was checked in a foray into Syria, during which he displayed a cruelty to Turkish prisoners shocking even to a more rough-hewn age. Fortunately, he was able to defeat a Turkish landing at Aboukir Bay, and this enabled him to return to France as a hero, even though the army that he had abandoned in Egypt was doomed to certain defeat and capture. Perhaps recognizing the transient nature of his acclaim, Bonaparte threw himself into a plot with opponents of the corrupt Directory. With the crucial assistance of his politician brother Lucien, he seized control of the government on November 10, 1799. This was the first military coup in modern history, and it became the model of many to come. Bonaparte, a man who in eighteenth century terms had come from nowhere, was master of the most powerful nation in Europe. In the next volume of his biography, Dwyer will explore what Bonaparte made of this unexpected opportunity. Together with Napoleon: The Path to Power, it should provide contemporary readers a compelling and useful portrait of Bonaparte.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8

Booklist 104, no. 14 (March 15, 2008): 23-24.

Library Journal 133, no. 7 (April 15, 2008): 92.

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