Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

Leopold Damrosch, Author
Leopold Damrosch, Author . Houghton Mifflin $30 (566p) ISBN 978-0-618-44696-4
Paperback - 566 pages - 978-0-618-87202-2
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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 Émile , 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)

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