Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present

By Clinton, Michael | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present


Clinton, Michael, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


David A. Bell. Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp.456. Cloth, $29.95.

Few academic historians are adroit enough to convey to a general audience the compelling fascination with and continuing relevance of the issues that drive scholarly squabbles. Princeton's David A. Bell is, though, and the list of periodicals where this book's chapters first appeared as reviews and essays testifies to his skill at simultaneously clarifying and complicating ongoing debates about the past to non-historians. Half appeared in The New Republic, several in The London Review of Books, with the rest scattered among such publications as The Nation, The National Interest, and The New York Times Book Review; the earliest dates from 1988, but most go back no further than ten years. Bell's monographs have explored the political, military, and--broadly speaking--cultural upheavals that France and the rest of Europe experienced during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This collection covers related topics from that period, along with episodes and issues in French history down to the present. It is an impressive and instructive showcase for this insightful historian's contributions to conversations that have shaped his field for over a quarter century--which might not be reason enough, however, for adding this volume to one's personal or institutional library.

After an introduction that weaves personal and professional reflection together to explain the volume's range of topics, its forty-one chapters are divided into seven parts. A "coda" offers thoughts in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that seek "to push back against the temptation to read the present through history and to where the shadows of the past do not fall" (407). Part I gathers essays whose topics transcend the chronological parameters of the remaining sections, with a review of the abridged translated version of Pierre Nora's Realms of Memory and others on matters of diversity in the representation of the past. The next three parts focus on Bell's main interest in the pre-revolutionary through Napoleonic periods, and include some of the more outstanding pieces in the collection. Among the topics considered in Part V ranging over the remainder of the nineteenth century are Victor Hugo, the phenomenon of Lourdes, and the Dreyfus Affair. In Part VI, Bell tackles troubling questions from the Vichy episode with essays that ask readers to contemplate the actions of Louis Darquier, Jean Guehenno, and Francois Mitterand, among others. The last part's chapters trace the "shadows of revolution" into the contemporary period, with some essays expanding geographically to the (then) Soviet Union and the Middle East. …

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