Clif's Reviews > The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914

The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Mar 11, 2012

it was amazing
Read in March, 2012

This is a book that I read many years ago, liked enough to keep and have now had time to re-read.

Though we think of our own time as one of great change, there was a feeling in the air at the end of the 19th century that will never again be experienced. It was a combination of innocence, wonder and anxiety produced by capitalism as technology and industry recreated the world.

The innocence came from a still powerful religious sense along with a strong idea of how things should be. But the lives people were living were not what tradition had provided before. Hard work didn't necessarily bring anything beyond more hard work. What was a man when at the mercy of machines? There could be no going back, yet the future looked very dim for those who toiled under the dictates of the factory system.

The small but rapidly growing middle class of owners was usurping the status of the landed gentry, so things didn't look good from the top down or the bottom up. Yet the wealth being gathered by the merchants and colonizers created an irrepressible energy whose wondrous output dazzled everyone.

The Proud Tower approaches the period from several points of view to give us the feel of fabulous wealth, terrible deprivation, political ambition, visions of social transformation, national pride and imperialism.

Tuchman takes us into European parliaments and Congress as governments and palaces struggle to deal with changes over which they have limited control. We also go into the workings of the Marxists and anarchists who dream of coming change while differing on whether to simply wait for it to happen, push it into being, or cooperate with the capitalist system to bring modifications that could improve the lives of the working people. Vivid personal portraits and strong opinions profoundly expressed give the pulse of humanity.

We go to the symphony and opera to feel the power of emotion expressed in the wildly romantic works of Richard Strauss, the supreme artist of the day. I was inspired to run out and get his opera, Salome, on CD at the library to hear what Tuchman so vividly describes. And we read of the work of Nijinsky, Nietzsche and Wilde as they shock the sensibilities of the time.

Of course, readers know that the period will end at the start of WW1, but this book does such a great job of recreating the pre-war atmosphere that the disillusion the war brought, with mechanized killing splashing the blood of millions on the hopes that had been kindled, can be more fully appreciated.
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