Posts Tagged ‘Paul Johnson’

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.

 

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 

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Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. “We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”

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He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: “As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he discussed Penultimata on April 24, 2010. “Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: ‘It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.’ Indeed he was.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.

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A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

Were the 1950s really that bad?

Friday, November 21st, 2014
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eisenhowerThe 1950s have taken a bum rap for years. You remember the 1950s: women were locked in their houses and forced to bake apple crumble and change diapers while men took their hats and briefcases to the office. Everyone was repressed, and unable to express their Innermost Selves. No one had any fun at all.

People forget how close the West came to losing it all. Had Hitler avoided a few military blunders, we might all be speaking German right now. Believe it or not, many men and women were happy to beat their swords into ploughshares and devote themselves to the virtues of peace. Being a riveter, though doubtless empowering, was not that much of a career enhancer. For kids, especially, it wasn’t a half-bad era. You had a pretty good chance of growing up in an intact home with the same parents, and children could walk to school safely and attend classes without gunfire. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost were still alive and writing poems, and the Partisan Review was in its prime. Was it that much worse than the 1930s, the 1910s?

Two recent reviews over at Books Inq seem to reinforce my sense that the era has been much maligned. The book at hand is Paul Johnson‘s Eisenhower: A Life  – a biography that’s 134 pages long, including the index. The Times Literary Supplement review said of Johnson: “His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together.”

My colleague Frank Wilson reviewed the book here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success – five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

“Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson’s book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

“A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly ‘a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike’s fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent. …’

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep

Maybe not such a loser, after all.

“Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. ‘He seems to have found it convenient and useful,’ Johnson writes, ‘for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself.’

“So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: ‘Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why.’ Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above. … One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower’s eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.”

Another one here by reviewer John Derbyshire, who seems to have suffered a sort of crush on the biographer once:

“In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower. He wrote:

Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.

bruce-cole

The real Bruce Cole

“The goal of political leadership is to secure for one’s country, so far as circumstances will allow, the things that most ordinary citizens wish for: prosperity and peace.

“On that score, Ike did superbly well. America’s 1950s prosperity glows golden in the memory of us who witnessed it, if only from afar. Peace? Paul Johnson draws a withering comparison between Ike’s masterly 1958 deployment to Lebanon—’the only American military operation abroad that Ike initiated in the whole of his eight years at the White House’—and the Bay of Pigs misadventure of the vain, shallow John F. Kennedy in the following administration.

“Discounting as best I can my partiality to P.J.’s prose, I’m convinced:  This was our best modern President.”

Postscript on 11/24:  Another country heard from! Not everyone agrees with the resurrection of Ike – below, Nevada blogger Bruce Cole elaborates on the comments he made Saturday. (Coincidentally, a Bruce Cole is a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission – this is not the same guy.) Colleague Bruce, who blogs over at A Citizen Paying Attention, disagrees with the reviews about Ike – but he concurs about the silliness of lumping cultural trends into decades – and don’t get me going on how much of the 1960s happened in the 1970s. Here’s the important part: he tells me he shares my enthusiasm for Czesław Miłosz.

Cynthia has been kind enough to ask me to elaborate a little on my hasty early Saturday morning comments about Eisenhower and the 1950s (two subjects, though they overlap).

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Maybe not so hot after all.

First, I mentioned John Lukacs‘ review of several books about Ike. The review ran in Harper’s in 2002 and was collected in the anthology of his writings, which I cited. He makes several points about the (again, two) subjects of Cynthia’s original post. Many of the characteristics of the 1960s (or things we associate so easily with that decade, or things we bemoan as happening since the Good Old Days) began in the 50s: the decline in our manufacturing and our savings, the deterioration of our cities, the net outflow of gold from the United States, the increasing problems of our public education system, the demotion of jazz as our most popular music, the “sexual revolution,” etc. The point is not that these were the fruits of Eisenhower’s presidency. Rather, they remind us not to indulge in a false nostalgia about an arbitrary set of years (a nostalgia whose mirror image is, of course, the 50s as staid, awful, and repressive).

Now, about Ike. Eisenhower (who, as a general in 1945, telegraphed Marshall Zhukov assuring him that the Americans wouldn’t reach Berlin before the Russians) came into office with talk about rolling back Communism, as opposed to the “cowardly containment” (Nixon’s words) of Truman. I am hard put to see where this ever happened. We did watch as Hungary (having been covertly encouraged by us) got tromped on in 1956. Lukacs has written often, and persuasively, about the chances in the years just prior to this when the West could have taken advantage of relative Soviet weakness to negotiate some kind of genuine rolling back of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe (Churchill, no softy, kept urging this course on Eisenhower). Even then, they removed themselves from Austria, forsook a naval base in Finland, recognized West Germany, etc.

All of that is as may be. Ike did not keep the “military-industrial complex under control.” The defense budget tripled throughout the fifties. Our military presence expanded all over the globe, including places where there was little or no Soviet threat. He fortunately did not intervene in Indo-China in 1954, but then there was little chance the US would. The Lebanon incursion in 1958 was an absurdity. The Korean truce of 1953 established what had been the status quo for about two years (nothing wrong with that, but it was no great accomplishment). Finally, there is that Bay of Pigs thing – all pre-packaged by Ike and the CIA for his successor, complete with “intelligence” assurances that a popular uprising against Castro would take place. So, “vain, shallow” JFK followed suit. Hmm, is there any reason to believe Richard Nixon would have fared better? No.

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He’s happy with the reviews, anyway.

Then there is McCarthy. Ike did not work McCarthy’s destruction, but kept silent while various Senators in both parties prepared censure in the Senate. It also should never be forgotten how Ike kept silent while McCarthy repeatedly slandered Ike’s patron, General Marshall.

Much of the above I owe to Lukacs’ analysis (which I again urge everyone to read) with a few embellishments of my own and no apologies from me at that score! Let me add something, though, on our two, inter-related subjects.

The origins of Eisenhower’s rehabilitation go back, in no small measure, to an article Murray Kempton wrote in the 1960s (!) for Esquire with a title something like “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” (Kempton was a great journalist, but when he went off the beam, look out!) The arguments were repeated by Garry Wills a few years later in an otherwise perceptive book, Nixon Agonistes. I think this was, in part, the reaction to “Camelot,” which spawned, of course, a multitude of anti-Camelots. We have a difficult time taking our presidents plain, anyway, and the contrast of the two in terms of age and “glamour” with LBJ following them, and Vietnam thrown into the mix, made it well-nigh impossible.

That leads me to the other subject (which actually I am more interested in). I, too, despise, “decade-talk.” Of course, the 50s were not simply the Age of Conformity and Repression. But notice how the nostalgia some people express for that time merely turns that idea inside out. I think this is the nub of the matter. So many of our debates occur between people who agree on terms and wouldn’t know a tertium quid if it hit them full in the face. That is why our “culture wars” have such staying power. Beyond the real issues, it is easy to sign up for a Line, a set of attitudes, a collection of loves and hates. Which, finally, is why the “bad” 50s will never go away as a cliché – but it is hardly alone in that.