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A disturbing theme explored by a capable historian.

An examination of hero worship via thoughtful biographies of George Washington and four contemporary leaders who were all idolized at the time.

No artist portrayed Elizabeth I or Louis XIV mingling with adoring crowds, but Princeton history professor Bell points out that their nonroyal successors enjoyed a far more personal relationship with the people. They were, in the modern sense, celebrities. Ordinary citizens, writes the author, “could feel a powerful emotional connection to them—a connection heightened by their sense of the figure’s sublime, transcendent, extraordinary qualities.” The first—and least-known—of Bell’s men on horseback is Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), a Corsican who fought for his island’s independence and became celebrated as the first apostle of liberty, aided by James Boswell’s worshipful bestseller, written long before his biography of Samuel Johnson. George Washington became America’s icon upon his appointment as commander in chief, and “even 240 years later, it is easy to take this initial surge of idolatry for granted.” Bell agrees with historians that his sense of transcendence was mostly a facade but admits that he alone of the five achieved long-lasting success. Napoleon referred to himself as the Washington of France, but he was merely a brilliant general; like most talented generals who don’t die prematurely, he self-destructed. Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) was the Washington of South America because he fought for his people’s freedom. Sadly, his elevation occurred after his death because the independent nations hated his attempts to rule, and he ended life reviled and alone. In Haiti, Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) led a bloody slave rebellion that won admiration in revolutionary France, which subsequently outlawed slavery in its colonies before Toussaint’s death under the rule of Napoleon, who tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstitute it. Bell concludes that the rise of autocrats today indicates that charismatic leaders, especially those who maintain that achieving national glory trumps boring institutions like laws, are finding a receptive audience.

A disturbing theme explored by a capable historian.

Pub Date: July 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-20792-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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