The Habsburg Empire: A New History, by Pieter M. Judson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard; 592 pp., $35.00). This book continues the arguments historians have made over the past three decades that challenge the long-received and -accepted view of the Habsburg Empire as an anachronism among European states in the 19th century. As Judson says, historians had previously presented the history of Western and Eastern Europe as that of “‘civic nationhood’ versus ‘ethnic nationhood,’ ‘developed’ versus ‘backward,’ ‘democratic’ versus ‘authoritarian,’ ‘ethnic homogeneity’ versus ‘ethnic mosaic.’” But these oppositions, he argues, are not justified by the study of the local societies that made up the Habsburg Empire. Rather, “by the last third of the nineteenth century the empire of the Habsburgs increasingly asserted its unique ability to create a productive unity out of the cultural diversity of its peoples.” Within the empire, national and imperial concepts and sentiments took form in a structured relationship, so that by 1900 imperialists were simultaneously nationalists, while nationalists sought to achieve their ambitions within the legal context of the empire. Thus,
The mere existence of linguistic, religious, and regional differences among the citizens of empire did not by themselves determine the course of imperial history. Nor did these differences alone create a sense that the world was divided among ethnic nations with equal claims on power.
Between the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, imperial institutions and culture influenced local societies across the empire, creating a sense of imperial unity that transcended the multiplicity of the whole. Empire has been called the default state of political society. The Habsburg Empire helps to demonstrate why, while making an implicit defense (whether intentionally or not) of a form of rule that has been almost universally abhorred since the Great War.
Montaigne: A Life, by Philippe Desan, translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 832 pp., $39.95). The author writes that
The object of this biography of Montaigne consists in recovering the time of writing the Essais and superimposing it on the time of history. Montaigne’s work on his Essais was far from homogeneous between 1572 and 1592; it almost always corresponded to successive intentions that were antithetical. . . . [F]or that reason it is preferable to speak of “campaigns of writing” whose publishing history can be traced in the light of historical events and Montaigne’s political experiences. . . . Approaching the Essais on the basis of Montaigne’s social and political motivations gives a new and often unexpected dimension to the text.
This thesis Desan manages to draw out over more than 800 densely printed pages of modern academic jargon, truisms, and platitudes. For example,
Montaigne has to be understood on the basis of the social and political facts that led him to write and act. . . . In his work the essay is not solely a literary form, it is also the expression of the judgment or the critical mark of the mind.
I cannot imagine anyone, including scholars with a special interest in Michel de Montaigne, making his way through this pseudocritical morass of a book.
The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet—Not Dry, Just History, by George Ade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 224 pp., $15.00). This book is an offset of the 1931 edition, published two years before the end of Prohibition. George Ade (1866-1944) was a highly popular newspaperman (for the Chicago Record), syndicated columnist, and humorist in his day, also a playwright, the scriptwriter for more than 100 movies, and the director of several short films. It is easy to forget in this day of legalized dope and universalized “free love” (as it was contemporaneously known) the passions provoked in those days by the issue of temperance and “strong drink.” “The trouble nowadays,” Ade writes,
is that hardly anyone can write about distilled, vinous and malt beverages without trying to float a lot of propaganda. All who write or speak for or against the occasional hoisting of the hip flask or the sharp rattle of ice in the shaker seem to be fighting mad. They become so overheated from using mean adjectives that they can’t calm down and discuss the past, present and future of the Prohibition Crusade and the brewery output and the conversion of corn into corn juice without getting into a lather and abusing the opposition.
The Old-Time Saloon is an amusing period piece by a writer who could be very, very funny—though less so in this book than in his immortal small volume Fables in Slang, which I discovered in the remnant library of the late historian Allan Nevins left behind when my parents acquired his farm in Vermont in the 1950’s, and have been rereading on a fairly regular basis ever since.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.