Giuseppe Garibaldi My Life.
Hesperus Press, 173 pages, $15.95

Hesperus Classics has shed a welcome light over the book world. Inaugurated in 2002 and distributed by Trafalgar Square Books in the United States, this London-based publisher has already produced dozens of elegantly bound paperbacks of some of the more obscure works in the canon: minor works from major writers; new translations of foreign classics; texts you may never see outside of old editions. Spare in footnotes, and with limited editorial content, these books are intended for the adventurous reader, not the scholar, and almost always offer welcome surprises.

My Life, Giuseppe Garibaldi’s battle-log in a new translation by Stephen Parkin, briskly follows the Italian nationalist from his landing in Italy in 1848. Fed by ill-fated republican fever, Garibaldi’s campaign quickly turns into a rout. His brigade beats a retreat from Rome up the spine of Italy in a bid to generate a popular uprising (“I found not a single man willing to rally to our cause”). His wife dies en route. With republican hopes dwindling, this hero of the Risorgimento escapes to America and eventually New York, where he finds work at a compatriot’s candle factory.

An impatient ten years later, Garibaldi is again called to Italy. This time he follows the Count di Cavour’s plan for a unified nation under a Savoyard king. The transition of Garibaldi from idealist republican to compromising monarchist reveals his maturing nature:

Yet the time today (1859) is not yet ripe for a republican system, either because our society is still too corrupt or because present-day monarchies have managed to ensure their own survival, and so, when the opportunity came for the nationalist forces working together with those of the monarchy to unite the country, then I gave the plan my unswerving support.
Although Garibaldi has often been considered an outdated romantic compared to Cavour’s modern man, the pragmatism he exhibited in the Risorgimento can be a revelation. His language, however, is another matter. Garibaldi bristles at not only the French and Austrians (“I could see Austrian soldiers walking around with their usual insolent air of being the masters”), but also the leading figures of the period—the idealistic Mazzini, the realpolitiking Cavour (who ceded Garibaldi’s hometown of Nice to France), and the parsimonious King Victor Emmanuel II. Garibaldi’s anti-clericalism could also be vicious.
So in reprisal I made all the monks of a nearby monastery march at the head of our column and threatened to shoot them all; the bishop refused to give way, saying that there was plenty of sackcloth in Italy to make new friars, and keep the prisoners.

This father of modern Italy may never have been her spokesman. Yet the rhetorical example Garibaldi set has undoubtedly been followed by that country’s outspoken leadership up to the present day—Berlusconi, no exception.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 5, on page 72
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