There is no adequate way to explain how a man born in chains became so free. In this case the reader is in no position to complain, however. Rousseau pioneered the concept that ideas fell out of experience, and the erratic, inventive urgency of the life is all here. A delight to read, Damrosch comes as close to Rousseau's authentic self as we are likely to get.
The New York Times
Considering Rousseau's prominence and historical importance, it is surprising to discover that (according to the publisher) this is the first single-volume biography in English. Damrosch, a professor of literature at Harvard University, has succeeded in presenting an incisive, accessible and sensitive portrait of this unpleasant, infuriating "restless genius." Sometimes, indeed, perhaps a little too sensitive: Damrosch's admiration can prevent his strongly condemning where condemnation is due. Rousseau (1712-1778) was the man, we should recall, who consigned his own infants to a foundling home, who sent a miserably small sum of money to his ailing former patroness and who bought an adolescent girl for nefarious purposes. Where Damrosch truly excels is in not only masterfully explaining the originality and meaning of mile, The Social Contract and the Confessions, but in relating those works to their author's conflicted, contradictory psyche. As Rousseau himself admitted, "I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices." Also, in vividly delineating the sage's final decade for the first time, Damrosch has performed a signal service: Maurice Cranston, who was writing a three-volume biography, died before completing the last part-thereby leaving readers in the dark as to Rousseau's fate. No longer. 43 b&w illus. Agent, Tina Bennett. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Damrosch (literature, Harvard Univ.; Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense) relates the life and works of the 18th-century man who so uncannily prefigured the modern mind. While interweaving Rousseau's own writing, which traversed philosophy, politics, fiction, educational theory, music, and more, Damrosch focuses on his subject's life, imbued by dramatic moments of encounter, departure, and epiphany (some known only from his autobiographical Confessions). There is the 16-year-old's decision to turn his back on Geneva, the meeting and new life with Madame de Warens, the inspired self-teaching, the volatile flirtations and friendships, and the dramatic flights from persecution for publishing "dangerous" works. Over 40 illustrations, plus a time line, will enhance the reader's enjoyment. Raymond Trousson's biography of Rousseau is yet to be translated into English; the most recent biography in English is Maurice Cranston's three-volume study, its attention to Rousseau's final years curtailed by Cranston's death. Damrosch collegially offers tasty quotes from these and other sources (all well documented). His greatest accomplishment may be that he will entice nonspecialists to turn to Rousseau and his world and undertake further study for themselves. Highly recommended for public and undergraduate libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/05.]-Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Thoroughgoing life of the often disagreeable, uncharismatic and world-transformative philosopher, he of "Mankind is born free and is everywhere in chains" renown. The French edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's complete published works runs to 10,000 pages, though Rousseau, characteristically, wished late in life that he had not written a word. As Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.) shows, anyone who had known young Rousseau would not have bet on his becoming world-famous in his own lifetime. Rousseau, Damrosch writes, was the motherless son of a Geneva watchmaker-no disqualification, for, as an 18th-century thinker noted, the artisans of the city "were fond of reading the works of Locke and Montesquieu" and were in many instances thoroughly radicalized. Rousseau's father spirited away a good bit of the inheritance that was supposed to one day be the son's, and when he remarried, Jean-Jacques presciently went out the door to seek his fortune on his own. He proved a poor apprentice though a sometimes helpful servant, and he insinuated himself in a few noble households while pondering what to do next, one observer volunteering that the best he could aspire to was "becoming a village priest." Rousseau chose another path, devouring a few libraries with the hungriness and half-method of an autodidact, then unleashing a torrent of words on the world of the dawning Enlightenment. One of the chief virtues of Damrosch's always virtuous biography-apart from accounting for Rousseau's late, little-studied years-is his close reading of Rousseau's oeuvre, from minor prose poems to major treatises such as emile and The Social Contract, which reconciles the events of his subject's never easy life with theoften contradictory ideas he came to espouse about such things as the noble savage and social equality, for which he is still remembered. A vigorous, lucid biography of perhaps the most influential thinker of his day, with plenty of juicy gossip about his extracurricular life.
"These pages...bring to astonishing life...an impossible man whose books made modern life possible....Immensely enjoyable and fast-paced."Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club and American Studies
"An incisive, accessible, and sensitive portrait . . . Damrosch has performed a signal service." Publishers Weekly
"The erratic, inventive urgency of the life is all here. A delight to read."Stacy Schiff The New York Times Book Review