Sunday, July 13, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe
Stephen Brumwell
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006
406 pages

I find it curious that General James Wolfe languishes in relative obscurity in comparison to the manner of his death and what he accomplished in his astonishingly short life. In a military career that spanned 19 of his 32 years he rose from a 'volunteer', that is a young teen serving with a regiment in the hopes of improving his prospects for a career in the military, to Major General and commander of the British assault on Quebec (modern day Quebec City), the main British thrust in 1759. Wolfe's victory on the Plains of Abraham enabled the British to assault Montreal the following year and drive the French out of Canada. One can argue that Wolfe's victory at Quebec laid the groundwork for the troubles which led to the American Revolution a scant sixteen years later.

Wolfe began his career in the British army when the fortunes and popularity of 'Thomas Lobster', or redcoat, were at their lowest. As there was no standing police force in the early 1700's the army was often called in to quell riots and the like and thus the British soldier was not popular with the populace. Added to this was the stunning lack of success the army appeared to have, particularly when compared to the navy which, it seemed, could do no wrong. By the time Wolfe fell the worm had turned and the British soldier was well on his way to being the respected professional that springs to mind when one hears the word Redcoat.

This being the case one has to wonder why so few people know the name James Wolfe. I took an informal poll of my friends and associates and while a few knew the name and that he did something important, only one or two were able to properly place him in time and space. According to Brumwell's introduction, "Wolfe's current reputation provides a sorry contrast to the one he enjoyed a century ago." While the majority of what had been written through the end of the 1700's and all of the 1800's about Wolfe was laudatory, in the 1900's opinion in academia began to swing in the other direction. Some of this, as Brumwell observes, was an unsurprising backlash against the saccharine nature of the earlier works on Wolfe where he was capable of doing now wrong. However as is too often the case what should have been a minor adjustment towards a more reality based view of Wolfe became, in some quarters, a wholesale crusade to demonize the man and portray him as "...unpleasantly vain, smug and humorless." These efforts even went so far as to question Wolfe's military genius with some concluding that he was most assuredly not a great general and that his particular cultural life after death was due purely to the circumstances of his death.

It is in this historical landscape that Brumwell asks how Wolfe can be as celebrated as he was in death without first having already enjoyed a good reputation amongst his peers and countrymen before his death. As stated by Brumwell the central question of the work is, "Does Wolfe's fame rest upon the circumstances surrounding a single dramatic and significant victory, or is there a deeper explanation for his great contemporary reputation?"

Brumwell goes on to explore Wolfe's life and the world in which he lived in a very lively book which I found compulsively readable. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in history.