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In changing forever the political landscape of the modern world, the French Revolution was driven by a new personality: the confirmed, self-aware revolutionary. Maximilien Robespierre originated the role, inspiring such devoted twentieth-century disciples as Lenine"who deemed Robespierre a Bolshevik avant la lettre. Although he dominated the Committee for Public Safety only during the last year of his life, Robespierre was the Revolution in flesh and blood. He embodies its ideological essence, its unprecedented extremes, its absolutist virtues and vices; he incarnated a new, completely politicized self to lead a new, wholly regenerated society. Yet as historian David P. Jordan observes, Robespierre has remained an enigma. While his revolutionary career embraced the most crucial years of the Revolutionse"1789 to 1794e"it was little presaged by the unremarkable course of his early life. The Jacobin leader to whom the revolutionary masses clung is thus both as mysterious as his remote provincial past and as awesome as the world-shaking regicide he inspired. Confronted by these extremes, historians have often contented themselves to caricature Robespierre as an antichrist, a bourgeois manipulator of the rabble, or a canny political tactician. Jordan looks to Robespierree(tm)s own self-conception for a true understanding of the man and his Revolution. Indeed, Robespierre wrote about himself often, and at length. Influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and the new literary genre of autobiography, he left behind a voluminous body of speeches, newspaper articles, and pamphlets laced with reflections and revelations about his self-created destiny as living martyr and revolutionary Everyman. From these thoughts and words, Jordan attempts to uncover Robespierre, to reveal what made this unlikely figuree"onetime provincial lawyer, small-town académicien, and uninspired versifiere"the most important in revolutionary France.
The Paris we know today, with its grand boulevards, its bridges and parks, its monumental beauty, was essentially built in only seventeen years, in the middle of the nineteenth century. In this brief period, whole neighborhoods of medieval and revolutionary Paris -- over-crowded, dangerous, and filthy -- were razed, and from the rubble a modern city of light and air emerged. This triumphant rebuilding was chiefly the work of one man, Baron Georges Haussmann, Napoleon III's Prefect of the Seine. It was Haussmann's task to assert, in stone, the power and permanence of Paris, to show the world that it was the seat of an empire of mythic proportions. To this end, he imposed grand visual perspectives, as when he transformed Napoleon I's Arc de Triomphe into a magnificent twelve-armed star from which radiated the broadest boulevards of Europe. Below ground, his modern sewer system became one of the wonders of the civilized world, eagerly toured by royalty and commoners alike. Haussmann's mandate was not only to create an impression of grandeur but to secure the city for better control by government. By creating formal spaces where there had previously been a maze of chaotic streets, Haussmann opened Paris to effective police control and thwarted the recurrent demonstration of its well-known revolutionary fervor. The determined and autocratic Haussmann imprinted rational order and bourgeois civility on the unruly city which had for so long simmered with riot and insurrection. Though he planted chestnut trees, installed gas lights, rebuilt the water supply, and improved transportation and housing, Haussmann's labors were (and remain) controversial. He forced tens of thousands of the poor from the center of the city, and destroyed significant parts of old Paris. But in this important new biography David Jordan reminds us that Haussmann was not immune to the charms of the old city. By leaving some areas intact, the Baron achieved the grand effect of implanting a modern city boldly within an ancient one. Here, at last, Haussmann's labors are given the aesthetic as well as the historical appreciation they deserve.
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