Sunday, November 14, 2010

Edward Berenson's "Heroes of Empire"

Edward Berenson is Professor of History and Director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. He is the author of Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France and The Trial of Madame Caillaux.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa, and reported the following:
Is “the quality of the whole” revealed on page 99 of my new book, Heroes of Empire? That’s, of course, not for me to say. But bizarrely enough, that one page features several of the book’s most important themes.

Heroes of Empire tells the story of five colonial figures, two British and three French, who made imperial conquest exciting, even exhilarating, for millions of ordinary citizens. Most British and French people never set foot in their country’s imperial possessions, nor did they have any economic interests there. But between 1870 and 1914, imperialism became a popular phenomenon. The press gave it top billing and advertisers embraced its “exotic” imagery. Above all, people looked up to the charismatic heroes whose adventures, richly narrated in penny papers, seemed to turn overseas expansion into a series of extraordinary, personal quests.

Page 99 comes about halfway into my chapter on Charles Gordon, one of Lytton Strachey’s “eminent Victorians.” Gordon was shyer about publicity than his countryman Henry Morton Stanley, an ardent, if ambivalent, self-promoter. But as I note on this exemplary page, Gordon did allow Vanity Fair to lionize him in one of its famous “Men of the Day” portraits.

Even more important, Gordon readily agreed to an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette’s editor W. T. Stead, one of the leading lights of Victorian journalism. The general had things “to say about the Sudan.” In particular, Gordon wished to warn his compatriots about the dangers “of a conquering Mahommedan [sic] Power established close to [our] frontiers.” (Both quotes, p. 99)

Stead’s front-page interview revived Gordon’s charismatic appeal and helped convince William Gladstone’s supposedly anti-imperialist government to send the hero to Khartoum. The Mahommedan Power, aka the Mahdi, had trapped British troops there, and a great many writers, Stead included, claimed the general would singlehandedly bring them home. Instead, Gordon too found himself besieged in Khartoum, where he ultimately fell to a Mahdist sword. The hero became a martyr—a Victorian legend and imperial saint.
Learn more about Heroes of Empire at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue