Archive for the ‘letters’ Category


The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

8 July 2008

Finally had a chance to finish this review, which was sitting in my files for longer than I’d liked. Finishing my review of Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons is next on my list, though I may have an older review available to slip in for Sunday.

The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

In the late 1700s, the British House of Commons contained a number of notable politicians whose friendships, rivalries, and ongoing intrigues might not seem out of place in today’s newspaper columns and political talk shows. The modern forms of today’s political party systems were still in their infancy, but their origins can be seen in the accounts of arch-rivals Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger facing each other across the floor of the Commons, as their respective groups of followers mobilised into constantly shifting tendencies and factions. One of the great ‘political personalities’ of the era was an Anglo-Irish MP named Edmund Burke, who had begun his political career as a private secretary of the second Marquess of Rockingham (one of several men who served very brief terms as Prime Minister in the 1760s and 1780s) but who soon developed a name for himself in the Commons for his oratorical style and his strong stances on several controversial issues of the day. The historian Edward Gibbon once described Burke as ‘the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew’, and Gibbon was certainly not alone in admiring Burke’s eloquence while simultaneously regarding many of the man’s opinions as rather beyond the pale.

In his time as an MP and a statesman, Burke was a defender of the rights of the Catholic minority in the United Kingdom, a critic of the harsh practices of slavery in Britain’s West Indian colonies, and a supporter of the grievances of the American colonists against the British crown. He also denounced the conduct of the British East India Company and its corrupt administration of the terrorities it had conquered on the Indian subcontinent. In the mid-1750s, he even wrote the essay A Vindication of Natural Society, a rationalist critique of Britain’s traditional social order that he would later claim was a piece of political satire, not meant to be taken as an indication of his personal beliefs. (This claim has since been disputed, though it works well enough as satire.) Yet in modern times, Burke is perhaps best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a polemical letter-essay written in November 1790 which condemned the events and philosophical underpinning of the French Revolution in no uncertain terms. His fierce opposition to the French Revolution made him highly unpopular with many of his friends and political allies, most of whom found it surprising that he would support the tenets of American Revolution but denounce the revolution that followed in France. Later commentators, however, would identify Burke’s Reflections as one of the fundamental documents that laid out the philosophical basis of modern conservative thought — its emphasis on the guidance of tradition and the existing social order as opposed to outright revolutionary change provided a basic underpinning of the various schools of conservatism that would develop in the years to come.

Isaac Kramnick, editor of The Portable Enlightenment Reader, has developed this volume of the Viking Portable Library to include a representative selection of Burke’s writings, illustrating Burke’s thoughts on social and political topics ranging from the abuses of British colonial power in India and the Americas to the radical philosophies of writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the proper conduct expected of members of Parliament and the aristocratic leaders of Great Britain. Kramnick’s introductory essay to this volume is an exceedingly good addition to Burke’s writings, primarily because it looks at how different historical schools of thought have regarded Burke and his philosophies in the centuries that have passed since his death. (In essence, American historians are more likely that their English counterparts to look favourably on Burke’s philosophical contributions, in large part because of the influence of Sir Lewis Namier’s re-evaluation of the history of Parliament in George III’s era.) For those who only know of Edmund Burke through his Reflections, or through the reactions of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Thomas Paine who regarded Burke as worse than reactionary, The Portable Edmund Burke is a fine, compact means of looking at the expanse of the man’s writings and evaluating them on their own terms.


Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.


Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.


Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

13 May 2008

I actually finished this book almost two months ago, but tackling the review for it was more difficult than I thought it would be. Partly because of the book’s length and scope, but also because it’s tricky to review an autobiography without simply summarising the author’s life. I think I’ve done well enough out of this one, for the most part.

Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

Mathematician, philosopher, social reformer, conscientious objector, writer, lecturer, anti-nuclear protestor — Bertrand Russell’s life is remarkably difficult to summarise in a few words, not least because it spanned nearly a century of constant political and social change. His grandfather was Lord John Russell, later the first Earl Russell, two-time Whig prime minister in the mid-nineteenth century and a son of one of the most well-connected aristocratic families in Britain. His parents, Lord and Lady Amberley, held radical views on atheism, birth control, and other moral values which were not far short of a scandal in the socially conservative late Victorian era. This mixture of orthodox and unorthodox influences formed the background of young Bertrand Russell’s life, and at times appeared to surface in the few scandals he managed to produce alongside his publications and lecture tours.

Russell’s parents died early in his childhood, and he and his older brother Frank were raised at their grandparents’ estate in Richmond Park. Like many well-to-do young men of his age, he was educated at home by a series of tutors, who encouraged his natural aptitude for the study of mathematics. Yet Russell also spent much of his adolescence fighting off depression, worries about his sexual desires and the loss of his religious faith, and suicidal thoughts — indeed, he admits that the thought of not being able to learn more mathematics was one of the few things that kept him from taking his own life. He passed the entrance examinations for Cambridge and began to work on mathematics at Trinity College, soon expanding his work into philosophy and eventually taking a philosophy fellowship at Trinity shortly after he graduated. The connections between mathematics, logic, and philosophy formed the basis of much of Russell’s work for the rest of his life, and his influence appears in the writings of later logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers such as Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Even after he became the third Earl Russell upon the death of his elder brother in the early 1930s, he carried on much as before, though he wryly notes in the autobiography that he found the title occasionally useful for securing hotel rooms. He published numerous essays, articles, and works of short fiction; worked on sweeping surveys of the history of social thought and Western philosophy; and maintained an exhausting lecture circuit. And in 1950, his contributions to ‘humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’ were considered of sufficient merit to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Apart from his academic career, Russell became more and more involved in political and social causes as he grew older. He was an active participant in the markedly unpopular pacifist and conscientious objection movement during World War I, a cause that alienated him from formerly close friends and colleagues and eventually ended in a six-month stretch of imprisonment in 1918. He was interested in the mechanics of socialism and communism, though he became one of the more strident critics of the Soviet Union, something which did not endear him to other left-leaning associates like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. He was an advocate of women’s suffrage, contraception, sex education, and homosexuality and divorce law reform, all of which feature prominently in the pages of his autobiography — particularly in the sections in which he frankly and unashamedly describes the ups and downs of his various marriages (a total of four, of which three ended in separation and divorce) and occasional affairs with other women. After World War II, he became associated with the world government and nuclear disarmament movements. In 1957, at the age of 85, he served as the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and participated in marches and demonstrations for several years afterwards. Well into his 90s, he worked on his autobiography, and continued to write public letters and editorials almost up until the day of his death in early February 1970, at age 98.

Covering more than 700 pages, Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography is an expansive text that is as much a work of social history as it is an individual’s life story. Each chapter contains a selection of personal letters, notes, and short articles that round out the written recollections. Although Russell writes engagingly of his adventures and travels, and is willing to admit his own faults and failings in retrospect, he does not always come across as an easy person to know or to live with — as a friend and colleague, he could be warm and disapproving, generous and chill, caring and frustrating by turns. Yet the book quite clearly presents the human being behind the careful mathematician, introspective philosopher, and active elder statesman, a life lived fully and as best as anyone might be able to live. In the end, it is unsurprising that Russell would preface the account of his life by saying, ‘This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.


Letter from America by Alistair Cooke

22 October 2007

I thought I’d posted this already, but it seems that I hadn’t yet. I need to start keeping closer track of the reviews I’ve posted compared to the ones I still need to post — now that I’ve cleared out a bit of my backlog, I may soon be able to start posting reviews of books I’ve read more recently.

Letter from America by Alistair Cooke

Depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re from, the name of Alistair Cooke conjures up a different set of sounds and images. For most people in the States, Cooke was the voice and image of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, his plummy tones borne through the television set on the regal trumpet fanfare of Jean-Joseph Mouret’s ‘Rondeau’. And because he hosted Masterpiece Theatre for the better part of two decades, to most Americans Cooke’s name is synonymous with high-brow costume dramas and classic British television imports. But for many British people, Alistair Cooke is best known for his ‘Letters from America’ — his weekly 15-minute broadcasts on Radio 4, a stunning 2,869 broadcasts in total that ran from March 1946 to March 2004. And it is these ‘letters’, or a good selection of them, that make up this book.

Five decades’ worth of broadcasts leaves a lot of material to choose from. Some of his letters had been published earlier, in books that are now out of print, but the letters from the 1990s and 2000-2004 had been uncollected previously. And it’s a sign of the editors’ skill in selection that there’s no sense of repetition in the selected letters, and that some of Cooke’s most powerful letters have their rightful place in this collection. His letters concerning the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy are masterful — particularly the latter, since Cooke was present in the hotel kitchen when the younger Kennedy was shot. He wrote about Vietnam and Watergate, about September 11th and the war in Iraq…but he also wrote about the beauty of Christmas in Vermont, about family holidays on Long Island, about life in America and how it changed in the years he lived there.

Letter from America is probably one of those books that you’d think to buy for someone else, or might see on a table in a bookshop and wonder if it’s worth purchasing or merely flipping through. But I’m glad to have purchased this book, because Alistair Cooke was, if nothing else, a cherished institution for Americans and Britons alike. And a collection of his broadcasts, even a partial one such as this, is fine reading material.


Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

11 September 2007

I still agree with the opinion about academic conflicts mentioned below. Very much so.

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

Let me preface this book review with an opinion I’ve developed recently. In my opinion, conflicts in academia are only enjoyable (let alone interesting) when they’re witnessed thirdhand. They’re awful when you’re part of them, and very unpleasant when you’re dealing with the fallout from them, but seen from a distance (and especially after most of the participants are dead) they can be remarkably fascinating. It’s rather like watching an early nature documentary — only without the voiceover person’s nearly incomprehensible accent.

That said, the Letters from Oxford are a collection of letters written by historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to art historian and critic Bernard Berenson. Trevor-Roper was an Oxford don and former military intelligence officer who had made a pile of money with the publication of his best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler. His work on Hitler was only the prelude to his career as a historian — or rather, his career as a historian who thoroughly enjoyed attacking OTHER historians of his day and age in various published articles and letters. His correspondence with Berenson began shortly after the end of the war and continued until Berenson’s death in 1959, and Trevor-Roper’s letters to his friend and occasional host (Berenson lived in Italy, and opened the doors of his villa to an exclusive array of guests) provided what Berenson wanted most to hear: gossip, and plenty of it.

Setting aside the snippets of gossip that would probably only interest people who like reading about old scandals amongst the literati, Trevor-Roper’s Letters from Oxford contain two remarkable gems of correspondence: his farcical descriptions of Oxford University politics (not the party-political kind, but rather the kind that determines who gets the vacant Regius Professorship or other high-powered post) and a remarkably trenchant real-time analysis of the Suez crisis. It’s in these sections where Trevor-Roper’s skill with words and turns of phrase really comes through, and the art of good letter-writing shows itself most vividly. Reading other people’s letters generally doesn’t tend to be interesting — even the Letters from Oxford have their fair share of syncophantic bread-and-butter notes and an almost nonstop undercurrent of whinging over Trevor-Roper’s latest bete noire — but it’s a treat nonetheless to find a correspondence that manages to capture a vivid and occasionally intriguing picture of the foibles of the past.