For the Soul of France by Frederick Brown
Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus

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Synopsis

Frederick Brown, cultural historian, author of acclaimed biographies of Émile Zola (“Magnificent”—The New Yorker) and Flaubert (“Splendid . . . Intellectually nuanced, exquisitely written”—The New Republic) now gives us an ambitious, far-reaching book—a perfect joining of subject and writer: a portrait of fin-de-siècle France.

He writes about the forces that led up to the twilight years of the nineteenth century when France, defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, was forced to cede the border states of Alsace and Lorraine, and of the resulting civil war, waged without restraint, that toppled Napoléon III, crushed the Paris Commune, and provoked a dangerous nationalism that gripped the Republic.

The author describes how postwar France, a nation splintered in the face of humiliation by the foreigner—Prussia—dissolved into two cultural factions: moderates, proponents of a secular state (“Clericalism, there is the enemy!”), and reactionaries, who saw their ideal nation—militant, Catholic, royalist—embodied by Joan of Arc, with their message, that France had suffered its defeat in 1871 for having betrayed its true faith. A bitter debate took hold of the heart and soul of the country, framed by the vision of “science” and “technological advancement” versus “supernatural intervention.”

Brown shows us how Paris’s most iconic monuments that rose up during those years bear witness to the passionate decades-long quarrel. At one end of Paris was Gustave Eiffel’s tower, built in iron and more than a thousand feet tall, the beacon of a forward-looking nation; at Paris’ other end, at the highest point in the city, the basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, atonement for the country’s sins and moral laxity whose punishment was France’s defeat in the war . . .

Brown makes clear that the Dreyfus Affair—the cannonade of the 1890s—can only be understood in light of these converging forces. “The Affair” shaped the character of public debate and informed private life. At stake was the fate of a Republic born during the Franco-Prussian War and reared against bitter opposition.

The losses that abounded during this time—the financial loss suffered by thousands in the crash of the Union Génerale, a bank founded in 1875 to promote Catholic interests with Catholic capital outside the Rothschilds’ sphere of influence, along with the failure of the Panama Canal Company—spurred the partisan press, which blamed both disasters on Jewry.

The author writes how the roiling conflicts that began thirty years before Dreyfus did not end with his exoneration in 1900. Instead they became the festering point that led to France’s surrender to Hitler’s armies in 1940, when the Third Republic fell and the Vichy government replaced it, with Marshal Pétain heralded as the latest incarnation of Joan of Arc, France’s savior . . .


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Frederick Brown

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Frederick Brown is the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor's Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.
 
Published January 16, 2010 by Anchor. 336 pages
Genres: History, Travel. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for For the Soul of France

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and General Boulanger, the nostalgic embodiment of “France bold and triumphant.” While France presented a face of modern innovation to the world in the form of successive Exposition Universelles and the Eiffel Tower, undercurrents of ugly anti-Semitism were being fed as the far right scrambled fo...

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The New York Times

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The struggle, as Frederick Brown puts it in “For the Soul of France,” his briskly paced and highly readable book, was between “champions and foes of the Enlightenment.” Louis Begley, in his recent book “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters,” drew frequent parallels between the tampering with judicial ...

Feb 05 2010 | Read Full Review of For the Soul of France: Cultu...

The Wall Street Journal

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A French military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of treason for passing secrets to Germany, though his only crime was being Jewish in late 19th-century France.

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The Wall Street Journal

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(Historian Theodore Zeldin, by contrast, allotted himself five volumes to cover the period 1848-1945 and still ended up concentrating on broad themes and dispensing altogether with chronology.) Then again, Mr. Brown simplifies his task by operating with a single organizing principle: Most of t...

Jan 30 2010 | Read Full Review of For the Soul of France: Cultu...

The Economist

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For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus.

Jun 10 2010 | Read Full Review of For the Soul of France: Cultu...

Bookmarks Magazine

Instead they became the festering point that led to France’s surrender to Hitler’s armies in 1940, when the Third Republic fell and the Vichy government replaced it, with Marshal Pétain heralded as the latest incarnation of Joan of Arc, France’s savior .

Feb 01 2010 | Read Full Review of For the Soul of France: Cultu...

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