I happened to catch a bit of the author speaking on NPR several weeks ago and was so impressed by what I heard, I frantically scrabbled around my car during a stoplight looking for a pen and wrote the author’s name on the palm of my hand. I checked out the book he was referencing, The Great Upheaval, and was glad I did. Granted, I’m still only about two-thirds of the way through, because this sucker is the size of a large dictionary, but it’s grand stuff, exactly what I needed after Cormac McCarthy, which was brilliant, but at this stage of my life I need to read something that doesn’t make me feel like hijacking a busload of children and looking for the nearest cliff.
Winik’s book is us a sweeping look at the history of several continents between 1785-1800; the Upheaval the title refers to is the American Revolution, which in turn sparked several social and political uprisings in Europe and Asia soon afterward, paving the way for the modern concept of nation-states and setting the table for the wars of the 20th century. Splitting its time between France, America, and Russia, the book fills in all sorts of historical blanks I wasn’t aware of – my dim grasp of world history from the period is limited to the American Revolution and some kind of crazy guillotining over in France.
Winik makes the point that even before the phone, internet, and satellite communication, nations were still interconnected. Events in one place inspire events in another, and when people are reading Montesquieu and Voltaire and Locke and Rousseau, and some upstart colonies from across the sea kicks England to the curb, then folks from even the most oppressed nations start wondering what they can do. It all doesn’t go smoothly. The glory of the French Revolution soon turns to chaos and terror as the most enlightened nation in Europe slowly commits suicide. Tiny Poland tries to rise up against the mighty Russian Empire, which is led by Catherine the Great, the grandest and most enlightened monarch of her time who invited the most brilliant minds available to her court but who brutally crushed dissent and free thought in her own people. Even America faces revolution as well, as the uncertain nation gets its legs and faces chaos in the form of the Whiskey and Shays’ Rebellions.
Generals, diplomats, and adventurers cross the world stage and flit from one country to another. Winik never strays from his role as historian, sticking to the facts, but makes that history fascinating and absorbing, using conversational language and building up tension between chapters as he switches from France to America to Russia and back again. This isn’t exactly a leisurely weekend read, unless your reading speed is roughly the speed of light, but it is a wonderful chronicle of an integral part of modern world history if you’re in to that sort of thing.