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Sunday, May 26, 2013
Americans who pick up Jesse Norman’s “Edmund Burke: The First Conservative” expecting to pick up ammunition in the ongoing political culture war may be a bit disappointed. Jesse Norman is a British Parliamentarian, and his definition of conservatism is rather more, well, liberal, than those of Ayn Rand or Glenn Beck.
Norman argues that Edmund Burke, a Whig, was a sort of protoconservative during his life, often advocating for ideals of social structure and cultural tradition before such ideas were equated with the term “conservatism.” And Norman may be correct, but it is hard to tell from this biography. Other, more in-depth biographies of Burke exist, and Norman admits to extracting a large amount of material from them to build his book’s argument.
This is where the book suffers greatly: Norman, in his desire to prove his point, blazes through Burke’s life, inserting quotes here and there that make it seem that Burke is, indeed, a true conservative. One can’t help but think that Norman cherry-picked some of his quotes; indeed, Burke’s writings are not necessarily voluminous, but certainly thorough, and Norman tends to choose a snippet here and a snippet there, and then say: See! A conservative!
The very structure of the book leads to this discomfort as well: For most of the book, the reader receives a fairly straightforward biography of Burke, though admittedly sparse, and then, suddenly, in the final two chapters, Norman fully takes over, and essentially writes essays arguing his point directly. The abrupt shift is jarring, and, at times, the essays read like an apologia for British conservatism in general. One wonders whether Norman, who is widely viewed as a sort of “rising star” in British politics, is using the book more as a political stepping stone than a reasonable attempt at writing a biography.
Norman’s “Edmund Burke: The First Conservative” is a decent enough read, and if Norman did his own writing, he is a good enough writer to carry the argument and the (often dry) history of the time forward. Even so, those looking for a biography of Burke would be better served looking elsewhere.
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