JEAN-JACQUES: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754 by Maurice Cranston

JEAN-JACQUES: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Dry, methodical, and competent, this first part of a projected two-volume biography follows Rousseau from birth to early maturity, with the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and Le Devin du Village just behind him and most of his great creative achievements (not to mention his worst agonies) still to come. Cranston is a political scientist (London School of Economics), and readers looking for a guide to J.-J.'s tangled psyche or analysis of his limpid style will be disappointed here. Cranston's narrative generally ignores such interpretation, offering instead a sober, cautious, ""Lockean"" presentation of the facts as far as they can be known. This is fine, but not necessarily illuminating. (E.g., for all his scrupulous attention to manuscript sources, Cranston can't help us with the old scandal over Rousseau's five bastard children supposedly sent to the foundling home: Did they exist? Were they his? Most likely they did, and were, but the evidence is thin as ever.) Cranston takes a consistently positive but fair-minded approach to Rousseau, noting his famous moral failures (the false witness against Marion, the abandonment of Lematheître, etc.) without harping on them. Newcomers to Rousseau will be helped by Cranston's habit of spelling things out--the arguments of the two Discourses, the details of la querelle des Bouffons. On the other hand, if they haven't read the Confessions, they'll miss some crucial episodes from Rousseau's early years (the meeting with the French peasant who hid his best food from the tax collectors, the marvelous ""Proustian"" scene with the periwinkle) which Cranston inexplicably omits. Given the immense scope of his genius (philosopher, novelist, musician, autobiographer, controversialist) and the state of the documentary sources (abundant but turbid), there will probably never be a definitive life of Rousseau. Whether Cranston's work will deserve to rank with that of scholars like J. Starobinski or L. G. Crocker remains to be seen. At the least it should prove to be a solid, balanced, if not exactly inspired, account and a valuable tool for all Rousseauistes, amateur or professional.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1983
Publisher: Norton