The author's account of the aspirations towards revolution from the dreamers of the romantic period via Marx and Engels to Lenin's arrival at the ...Show synopsisThe author's account of the aspirations towards revolution from the dreamers of the romantic period via Marx and Engels to Lenin's arrival at the Finland station in Petrograd in 1917. The author also wrote "Axel's Castle", "The Wound and the Bow", "The Shores of Light' and "Patriotic Light".Hide synopsis
It has been several months since I finished To the Finland Station, and I?m still in awe of the scope of this book and its sensitive author. To the Finland Station is a world-class work of scholarly non-fiction. It reads like a novel partly because there are no endnotes or footnotes--though a handy index--but largely because the highly-perceptive writer, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), mastered three elements of the novelist?s craft: the narrative arc or rising and falling action, the reader?s need for sensory language which shows the characters in action, and the relationship of geographic location to action and character. Through Edmund Wilson, we ?see? Karl Marx courting his wife, the daughter of the Baron von Westphalen, in Trier, Germany; we ?see? Lenin in a harsh Siberian winter, we ?see? the cast of hundreds of thousands oppressed under absolute monarchies.
Keep in mind that the subtitle of To the Finland Station is ?A Study in the Writing and Acting of History.? This book is just as much about the historical actors as it is about Edmund Wilson?s ability to trace the history of an idea. In order to understand the later chapters on Marx and Engels and Lenin, one must understand this ?idea?--the main character of the book--and why Wilson begins his narrative with Jules Michelet and Giambattista Vico. Quite simply, Wilson wrote a modern history with which the world should now be familiar: that idea is that the development of democracy is inevitable, particularly because industrialization enabled people to organize based upon their economic class, which was partly determined by their relationship to industrial development. Edmund Wilson says that Michelet, who loved to read and write, was looking for a way of writing history that would account for how people feel about their lives, how industrial life, and the new, ugly slums affected the formation of nations--as well as the individual person. In a phrase--though I?m being very brief--thinkers from Michelet to Marx and Lenin were looking at ideas of human progress: how can people improve themselves, become better people, have justice served, what is the capacity for human beings to govern themselves, and what stands in the way of human development? What I?m writing here can?t give you the beauty of Wilson?s succinct prose, his ability to capture the essence of human history.
All my questions were answered by To the Finland Station: What were the working conditions for factory employees such that they had to revolt? How did rich people respond to these conditions? Was it inevitable that the Czar of Russia and his family be executed in 1917? What was Lenin trying to do that was perverted by Stalin? How or why was Communism different in Russia than in England or Germany? What is the difference between Communism and Socialism? Why do the people of France still seem proud of their 19th-century revolutionary history? How might Europeans today think of their history with each other such that the United States would be affected?
If you are not a specialist in 20th-century history, and do not have time to consult the original documents written by everyone Wilson mentions--from Giambattista Vico and Hegel, Jules Michelet, and Robert Owen to Karl Marx--To the Finland Station sorts it all out and sheds light on so much.
Months after I finished reading this book, I?m still typing up my notes on the sections where I left little x?s in the margins to note areas of critical, topical concern. But knowing bits of To the Finland Station is more than about being conversant in American and European history; it?s about knowing who we are and have been and where we are going. Wilson concludes: ?To accomplish such a task will require of us an unsleeping adaptive exercise of reason and instinct combined.?
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