Cozying up to Clio
ONE REASON The Wind from America is interesting is that it raises the question of how far a historian should go in catering to a popular audience and what risks he takes in an age when readers seem much given over to concern about Suzanne Somers' cooking skills and Cher's love life. Claude Manceron is a French novelist and biographer (of Voltaire) turned historian. His current project, which has already exacted twenty years of research and writing, is an eight-volume history of the revolutionary period in France called Men of Liberty. It runs roughly from the death of Louis XV in 1774 up through the Terror to the moment in 1797 when exhausted Frenchmen waited for the dawn of Napoleonic order.
The Wind from America (1778 to 1781) is Volume 2, and like all four volumes already published in France, it was a runaway best-seller. If some of this success is due to the French passion for the French past, encouraged by the still high historical demands placed on educated Frenchmen by the baccalaureate degree, much of it must be attributed to Manceron's way of presenting his material. For what Tom Wolfe was to the new journalism, Claude Manceron is to the writing of history.
Wolfe would do anything (anything) to avoid what he called the "pale, beige tone" that had become the boring, understated narrative voice of journalism. Manceron clearly feels the same way about the pale gray of academic history. Like Wolfe he over-reports his subject, amassing mountains of footnotes, facts, opinions, and colorful quotations. (Says the mother of the Duc de Chartres, when asked who the boy's real father was: "When you fall into a briar patch, can you pick out the one that scratches you?") Manceron's laudable, but sometimes unsuccessful, aim is to stir among his readers a kinetic "you are there" empathy with an assortment of persons and predicaments from the past.
Nobody reading The Wind from America will have any doubt why the French refer to a popularizer as a vulgarizateur. Though certainly vulgar, Manceron at his best, like Wolfe at his, can be sharp and original. His portrait of Ben Franklin dropping in on Madame Helvetius and her eighteen Angora cats, and later trying to get the lady to marry him (at age seventy-five to her fifty-three), blends quotes from Franklin's letters and journals with Manceron's unquestionable gift for small talk in ways that could hardly be improved upon by Wolfe himself:
Manceron does not entirely avoid what French historian Fernand Braudel has called, with a faint verbal grimace, l'histoire événementialle (history told mainly through great events). The book takes up celebrated battles like Yorktown, and historic moments like the rather public birth of Marie Antoinette's baby, and the resignation of Necker, who has just fatefully failed to reform Louis XVI's economic policies. It is crammed with famous personages: Louis himself, Washington; Lafayette, Encyclopedist Denis Diderot, the nine-year-old Napoleon, who is still sharing a bed with his elder brother Joseph.
Manceron sees great men small, though, and for the most part foolish, from a viewpoint in which schoolboy cheek and Marxist cynicism combine. He packages history chronologically, month by month, like a journal, not as shapely, sequential chapters but as oddly juxtaposed vignettes. (John Paul Jones attacking the British port of Whitehaven and Mozart's homesick mother dying in Paris, for example, are presented back to back to back under July of 1778.) The sheer array of recherché persons and places is also impressive:
French soldiers in cork vests practice amphibious maneuvers in the Seine for a cross-channel invasion of England that never comes; Philippe Egalité, age thirty-one in this volume, tries to acquire worldly luster in a naval battle, against England, hoping to break out of the limbo of libertinage into which, as Manceron sees it, Louis XVI's henchmen always tried to cast members of the cadet branch of the royal family; Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer treats his patients with "magnetized" water and listens to their case histories, like a modern analyst. There are seventythree such vignettes in this volume alone, each written as they might have been rattled off by a slangy, knowing novelist presenting the reader with a minor character of his own invention.
Manceron's slangy style veers from interior monologue to what Tom Wolfe called a "downstage voice" that comments on the proceedings as if engaged in them. One voice has been specially created to sneer on behalf of the French court. "Lafayette has America on the brain," it will say. Or, retailing the Versailles view of France's involvement with Lafayette's overseas passion, the American Revolution, "Everybody's bored to tears with this war. It's like a play that never ends."
The author has a born popularizer's skill at putting a historic decision in contemporary perspective and briskly summing it up in worldly human terms. He also conveys, with extraordinary intensity, the odd blend of murderous rage and compassion that gives rise to revolution. Following the argument of the 1781 edition of the Abbé Raynal's Histoire des Deux Indes, which the contemporary French historian Yves Benot has described as "the revolutionary testament of the eighteenth century," Manceron records Raynal's impatience with the standard argument that cruelty and exploitation are all right because they have always existed. Manceron concludes:
Everyday Frenchmen can, and still do, use such a word as "ignoble" without sounding pretentious. French intellectuals can and do employ slang without sounding as if they were trying to hype the unwashed reader. But Manceron's constant straining after vivacity does not travel well. Here is Nancy Amphoux's Americanized rendering of another naval hero, Pierre André Suffren, burning for action aboard his sixty-four-gun ship, the Fantasque, while the French fleet loiters in Martinique under dilatory Admiral d'Estaing.
Suffren was as tough a seaman as ever walked a quarterdeck. He was foul-mouthed - and foul-smelling, too, it would appear - and this appreciation of d'Estaing's tactics is perfectly accurate. But after a while that kind of self-conscious chatter gets between the reader and the subject. He would gladly swap Manceron's color for a little cool gray prose.
Manceron offers his own personal commentary fairly often. But his method customarily keeps his perspective close to the perceptions of the character he is inhabiting at the moment, and often not enough is known, despite all that research, to provide adequate basis for the kind of from-the-insideout reflective monologue he indulges in. One result is that the actual wind from America, circa '78-'82, which has to do with the rights of man, does not blow very strongly through the book. The war in the colonies is fleetingly glimpsed by Lafayette, though Manceron includes aperçus from men like Rochambeau, de Grasse, and even Count Axel Fersen, a Swedish courtier and friend of Marie Antoinette.
French readers, of course, will not much miss the American scene. But even from the French point of view The Wind from America is a book very much about a curtain-raising period. In 1780 the French Revolution, which all these doings are intended to elucidate and lead up to, was scarcely dreamed of, let alone inevitable. Unavoidably, many of the private lives that Manceron takes up as early threads to his later narrative belong to men and women whose thoughts and actions have not yet become matters of public moment. In Volume 1, entitled Twilight of the Old Order, he briefly presented Danton and Robespierre as schoolboys, the one playing hooky from school in Rheims to witness the coronation of Louis XVI in Paris, the other delivering a speech in praise of the monarchy from the steps of Notre Dame. In The Wind from America, Jean Paul Marat appears, at age thirty-seven, a doctor much outraged at the Establishment because his treatise on fire and electricity is rejected by the Academy of Science. Several entries, and many pages, are devoted to a will-they-or-won't-they soap opera about the courtship of Manon Phlipon and Jean Roland. The young Count Mirabeau is visited in jail, writing to his mistress, long-suffering Sophie de Monnier. Future gunslingers and mudslingers of the revolution, among them the Abbé Roux and Jacques Hebert, flit in and out, variously afflicted by pimples, poverty, failure, impotent fury, and the kind of juvenile isolation that seems to have led first to romantic individualism and then to hatred of authority.
Trying to be knowledgeable about so many ideas, and incidents, Manceron runs risks, cuts corners, commits small errors visible even to the layman. Historians will no doubt stomp all over him. But his one real problem is a stylistic reach so far exceeding his (or anyone's) prolonged grasp that what at first seems a clever and attractive trick eventually exhausts the writer, and the reader too. The effect is a little like watching someone try to play "The Minute Waltz" in thirty-eight seconds, over and over again for a year.
It may be that both the Manceron manner and matter will not be really proved out, for good or ill, until his characters are on more familiar historical ground, wading in blood and rhetoric - in the full rush of revolution, for example, when Roland was Minister of the Interior and killed himself after receiving news that his wife had been guillotined as a Girondist. To find out, readers should check back in along about Volume 5.