Posted by: zhiv | December 3, 2012

A Short Biography of Napoleon

Napoleon, by Paul Johnson (2002) Penguin Lives

I wrote a post about The General and The Biographer, right at the start of the Petraeus Affair, another swim in different waters, but I hesitated and it dated itself very quickly. It contained a fair amount of general speculation about biography, some of which was background for this post. Just saying.


Biography has all sorts of uses and felicities. Perhaps its basic premise is that each and every life has a beginning, a middle, and an end, that it’s a story, a narrative. We in turn relate that to our own lives, our own journey, and try to gain some perspective. At the same time we can look at lives as the building blocks of history, connecting them en masse and in all sorts of different ways, sorting out specific roles in political, social and historical movements and events.

The life of Napoleon is in many ways the classic biographical subject of the modern era, a study of the rise of the individual out of the messy workings of democratic revolution, and an example of how ancient forms and principles of tyranny applied themselves to rising nationalism and post-monarchical statehood. The US, and our teaching and study of history, has strong counter-texts to the life of Napoleon in the lives of George Washington and the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, a pointed and effective anti-imperial mythology. England and the Victorians also created a legacy and tradition of anti-Bonapartist studies, biography and history, keeping a strong division between military leadership and statesmanship, with a weak monarchy providing a buffer of symbolism, a complicated but rather organic structure. And in the meantime 19th century critics, notably Carlyle and Emerson, used the example of Napoleon as a starting point for the study of the limits and meaning of the role of the individual in society and history. Or something like that.

It’s a massive and gigantic mound of materials and issues, like an ancient metropolis buried under centuries of broken buildings and structures and sand. The quiet and tawdry ending and all of the missed opportunities and shortcomings were largely eclipsed by the rising cult and mythmaking and rehabilitation, the materials for idolatry and symbolism more malleable in death and posterity. We’re left with a story and a life that is somehow always catching up with itself, finding new ways to fit into the current narrative. Time, measured in decades and half-centuries and now almost two hundred years after Waterloo, makes it all a lot easier to see and understand, at least in broad strokes.

A good short biography of Napoleon goes a long way at this point in providing an important perspective and insight into the history of the last 250 years, the modern period after the American and French Revolutions. We get the story from so many sources and in so many haphazard, half-baked ways, especially here in the US, that it’s easy to bypass the basics of Napoleon’s life, taken as a whole, his rise and fall. But a good short biography, like this one by Paul Johnson, presents a number of keen overarching principles. The advantage of short biography is that creates itself by separating wheat from chaff in a most radical manner, just the opposite of the common biographical approach. It’s a tricky but intriguing and entertaining sub genre, a favorite and quite useful and satisfying in its way when it’s done well, as it seems to be here.

The most incisive point made in this book is that Napoleon laid the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. If this wasn’t obvious enough already, perhaps obscured by the century between Waterloo and WWI, Johnson adds a number of key points that bolster and inform the argument. The one I found most interesting is the idea that German unification and militarization was a direct response to Napoleon’s wars and armies, as the coalitions and forces that were left behind in his wake ultimately followed the logic of Napoleon’s imperial statecraft, moving inexorably towards militarized industrialization, tyranny, and even genocide. Napoleon and his regime not only planted all of the seeds, they also provided the blueprint, as well as the link to classical empire, Roman domination of the Western world. There’s a continuum, in looking at this life story, a level beyond the cultural recovery of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, through Goethe’s romantic individualism, into the realm of state control, a replay of Julius Caesar’s assumption of the role of Emperor, the step rejected by George Washington, a directly traceable line to Hitler.

Along with poignant global historical implications and insights we get a better sense of the human subject at the center. I never thought much about the core of Napoleon’s character, although I picked up a good number of details along the way, mythologized and otherwise, including of course the simple and effective idea of a “Napoleon complex.” But the emphasis here is on energy, steady applied pressure and tirelessness, combined with speed, decisive action, and modern efficiency and organization. Revolutionary and Napoleonic France was pre-industrial, as the factory model was evolving more quickly in England, but artillery and its movement and deployment was a sort of precursor, a decisive form of military technology of which Napoleon was the master, using it with a bold and dynamic tactical approach. It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, very well presented in this little book. There’s the downside too, of course, the mistakes and crimes and tragedies of building a state out of a death machine, and vice-versa.


When I look at this period and these materials I always remember my first and only upper division history class, a failure that made me stick exclusively to the sunnier climes of the English Department and literature. I started college as a terrible, clueless student. My cronies all studied Poli Sci, headed toward law school, which was pretty much the beaten path in those days. They all took the survey course in American History, but that didn’t make sense to me, as we had just taken American History in 11th grade, not AP but pretty solid, a fair amount of content compared to all of my other high school classes. I always point to the amount of academics in the movie Dazed and Confused, to any one curious about the high school experience in the mid-70s: it was 2% academic, 3 or 4 at the most and definitely not 5%, and 96-97-98% social, with sports included in that number. I was the editor of the newspaper, which was a very zhiv job when I was a senior, and I didn’t take many English classes. The only book I read was The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud.

I started catching up a little when I went to UCSB in the fall of ’76, and one of the major tipping points was taking Western Civ instead of American History. I liked it; it was interesting, a great introductory college survey. And that got me to the French Revolution course, which I wasn’t prepared for. I missed classes, didn’t do a lot of the reading, and as I fell behind the lectures were confusing, and I floundered. The whole thing was quickly over my head. I didn’t know how to read a real, analytical history book, and had never strayed much beyond a standard textbook. I think I was just starting to learn how to read books in general, cutting my teeth on Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I was slowly gaining a sense of length and narrative wholeness, the idea that books actually end and reach conclusions; before they had seemed oceanic and impossible. Once I figured this out–and it’s strange that it had to be learned, and that I was such a late bloomer–, I started picking up steam pretty quickly, but after my History Department struggle I stuck to literature. I liked novels and stories. I became interested in biography. It took some time before I was ready for critical analysis. My point, I guess, is that I had to go through a sort of late, basic training as a reader before I could appreciate and enjoy even simple and accessible non-fiction, like this book. So I can think about how helpful it would have been, how reading something straightforward and concise and a few similar texts would have made me a decent student of history, which I always enjoyed at least in theory, and I would have understood some of this stuff and wouldn’t have bombed out. At the time, sadly, it wasn’t going to happen.


  1. You are right that “a good short biography of Napoleon goes a long way at this point in providing an important perspective and insight into the history of the last 250 years” but this is not that biography. I remember the same anticipation when I first picked it up years ago. But Johnson’s Napoleon is poorly researched and full of errors. It is loaded with undocumented gossip and unjustified ideology. It might have been an unusual and interesting interpretation if he would have bothered to get his facts straight. Unfortunately, as written, it is mostly a work of fiction.

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