Francis Wheen is a distinguished author and journalist who was voted Columnist of the Year in February 1997 for his weekly column in the Guardian. He has written several books including the highly acclaimed biography of Tom Driberg MP, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize.
"It is time to strip away the mythology," writes Wheen, "and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man." In the first major biography of Marx since the end of the Cold War, Wheen does just that as he looks for the man lurking behind the myths of both enemies and disciples, the misinterpretations and the academic jargon. What he finds is somebody who will suit nobody's purposes--Marx, Wheen argues, lived his life messily. He was neither a clearheaded revolutionary nor an unrepentant hypocrite, but he wasn't the anti-Christ either. More or less incapable of holding down a steady, salaried job, he mooched off of his selfless wife, Jenny (an aristocrat fallen on hard times), and his well-to-do ideological partner, Friedrich Engels, and spent his time obsessively writing unreadable, unmarketable economics tracts. He also spent a good deal of time preaching the imminent revolution of the masses (with whom he appears to have had little affinity). Following Marx from his childhood in Trier, Germany, through his exile in London, Wheen, a columnist for the British Guardian, takes readers from hovel to grand house, from the International Working Man's Association to Capital, from obscurity to notoriety and back again. (Only 11 mourners attended Marx's funeral.) The narrative veers unsteadily from scorn to admiration for the bearded philosopher. Wheen begins by jeering at Marx's cantakerousness and ends by lauding him as a prophet and a brave survivor of poverty and exile. In the end, Wheen's breezy, colorful portrayal is as eccentric as its subject. 16 pages of illustrations not seen by PW. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Little about Marx was left undiscovered by David McLellan's highly regarded Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (LJ 3/1/74), but left-leaning British journalist Wheen attempts to add some new understanding. Wheen does correct a small error that McLellan advanced about Charles Darwin's nonrelationship with Marx, but otherwise his book is notable less for the quality of the scholarshipDwhich is solid enoughDthan for his deft portraiture. Wheen's Marx is often charming and likableDand just as often not. An earlier generation of biographers depicted an impoverished Marx dependent upon the generosity of collaborator Frederick Engels, but Wheen demonstrates that Marx actually led a bourgeois lifestyle beyond his meansDmostly for the sake of his daughters, whom he adored. Engels seemed to regard Marx almost as a fortunate younger sibling would a brilliant but unlucky older brother. Wheen's book is engagingly written, but his editors have done him a disservice by retaining an overabundance of British colloquialisms that simply do not travel well across the pond. Still, Wheen's compelling depiction of the truly historic Marx-Engels friendship combines with a bold prose style to commend his book to serious academic and public libraries.DScott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.