The extraordinary life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century literary genius who changed the course of history, traced with novelistic verve.
Motherless child, failed apprentice, autodidact, impossibly odd lover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau burst unexpectedly onto the eighteenth-century scene as a literary provocateur whose works electrified readers from the start. Rousseau’s impact on American social and political thought remains deep, wide, and, to some, even infuriating.
Leo Damrosch beautifully mines Rousseau’s books—The Social Contract, one of the greatest works on political theory and a direct influence on the French and American revolutions; Emile, a groundbreaking treatise on education; and the Confessions, which created the genre of introspective autobiography—as works still uncannily alive and provocative to us today.
Damrosch’s triumph is to integrate the story of Rousseau’s extraordinarily original writings with the tumultuous life that produced them. Rousseau’s own words and those of people who knew him help create an accessible, vivid portrait of a questing man whose strangeness—as punishing and punished lover, difficult friend, and father who famously consigned his infant children to a foundling home—still fascinates. This, the first single-volume biography of Rousseau in English, is as masterfully written as it is definitive.
Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on eighteenth-century writers.
Praise for Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Leo Damrosch's vivid biography enables us to plunge deeply into Rousseau's singular life, conjure up its crucial encounters, retrace its twisting paths, and supplement Rousseau's own claims about himself with the detailed, often contradictory testimony of the contemporaries he so unsettled and inspired."—Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
"These pages bring to life the Europe of the ancien regime, a desiccated, sybaritic, superstitious, oppressive world about to be terribly and fatally convulsed. And they also bring to astonishing life a great agent of that convulsion, an impossible man whose books helped to make modern life possible. Leo Damrosch not only helps us understand Rousseau, his loves and his hates, his genius and his foolishness. He makes us see Rousseau. And, as he shows again and again in this immensely enjoyable and fast-paced story, that is Rousseau’s special and permanent fascination—because when we see him, we are seeing ourselves."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club and American Studies