Sunday, April 19, 2009

By Michael Kimmage
Harvard University Press, $45, 433 pages

Michael Kimmage is a young, serious historian who gives us an intellectual history of the United States during the years surrounding World War II. He does this by analyzing the roles two former communists played, how they led crucial roles in anti-communism and assisted in “The Conservative Turn,” as his book is aptly named, of American cultural and political thought.

Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers were classmates at Columbia University during the 1920s. Both were aspiring writers, and very much of the left (a play that Chambers had written was so radical the administration asked him to leave).

Whittaker Chambers was fat, pasty-faced, passionate and always ill-groomed. He came from old American stock, but nevertheless appeared to be the antithesis of the traditional Ivy League WASP. Lionel Trilling’s antecedents were Orthodox Eastern European Jews who came to the United States via England. He was urbane, well-dressed, very much an anglophile and constantly sought balance, rather than passion.

Greatly dissimilar in temperament, they both, in their desire for lasting social justice, became Marxists. After leaving Columbia, Chambers joined the Communist Party and soon became involved in espionage for the Soviet Union. The disappearance of a colleague who had inadvertently mumbled some anti-Soviet comments alerted him to the deadliness of the Soviet apparatus, and the public acknowledgement of the Gulag drove him to the recognition of the evils in the Soviet system and to the conviction that he could not continue to work for a system that considered the Gulag a normal part of governance.

Chambers returned to the Episcopalianism he had been born into, and eventually became a Quaker. His faith, he felt, was the essential bulwark against the rampant materialism of both the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Through it, he was also able to rid himself of the homosexual urgings that had tortured him earlier. He was fortunate enough to secure a position at Time magazine and, through his talent and industry, was able to work his way up, ultimately becoming an important administrative figure and a source of advice for the publisher, Henry Luce.

Lionel Trilling never became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and certainly did not engage in espionage. He was, however, a self-designated Marxist. He moved away from communism, however, when he saw the balance that he felt vital to any intellectual endeavor missing from the positions taken by his liberal colleagues.

They wept oceans of tears when talking about share-croppers in the South, but were completely deaf to the cries of the peasants in the Ukraine who were being herded off to concentration camps because of insufficient communist ardor.

In time, Trilling became what his parents had always wanted him to be: a university professor. Despite being both Jewish and a Marxist, Trilling was able to secure a position in the English Department at Columbia because of his brilliant work on Matthew Arnold and other Victorian writers and remained there throughout his life.

The outlet for most of his writing was the literary quarterly the Partisan Review, which soon became the leading “little magazine” in the country and the most influential. The writers were men of the left but strongly anti-communist, with Trilling perhaps the most anti-communist of all. Yet he considered himself a liberal, with his most important book being “The Liberal Imagination.” He believed in human progress and was a man of the Enlightenment. He felt that through literature the human race could rise to new heights of rationality and political sensitivity.

An occurrence which illustrates his beliefs vividly was an invitation to the White House from President Kennedy. The Trillings had supported Kennedy in the election and were naturally delighted to go. There, they were greeted warmly, and chatted comfortably about literature with both Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy. When they left, they were both in rapture. It was an honor, of course, to be guests of the president, but to finally have a president who was not only interested in the arts but considered them an integral part of his governance was an answer to their prayers. Unfortunately, their rapture was as short lived as Mr. Kennedy’s tenure.

The author, at times, seems to conflate conservatism with anti-communism. Undoubtedly, the United States became strongly anti-communist with the advent of the Cold War, but it does not follow that the country became equally conservative. A comparison of today’s prurient and supine popular culture with that of the era he is analyzing could lead one to the opposite conclusion. No two conservatives are exactly similar. Nevertheless, if the author had given us a few benchmarks of what he means by conservatism he would have been well served.

The reader, however, is very well served by this comprehensive account of the political and intellectual life of an era that cannot be forgotten, complete with the Alger Hiss trial that shattered the comfortable harmony the country had reached. The book is a prodigious effort, and one that should act as a guide for those too young to remember.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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