Sunday, August 22, 2010

Three Wise Men: Kennan, Barzun, & Lukacs

I just re-read John Lukacs's George Kennan: A Study in Character. More about this particular work in a later post. In re-reading this book, I reflected on these two men, who were friends and correspondents for over fifty years, and how they both intrigue me. I add to them the person of Jacques Barzun to complete a trio for my pantheon. What do they share and why do I find them so worthy of attention and admiration?

The three men share some surface attributes. Each is (or was) long-lived: Kennan, who died in 2003, lived to 101 years of age; Barzun is now 102, and Lukacs, the kid among the three, is now 86, and still writing. Kennan remained an active writer and traveler up to his 100th year. Barzun published a tome on Western Civ well into his nineties. (I don't know about his current state of health). Lukacs, in the mean time, is still actively publishing; in fact, I just learned that he's published his correspondence with Kennan (Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs (2010) (this moved up immediately to the top of my buy list). In addition, each of these individuals is an American; however, Kennan is the only native-born American, having grown up in Wisconsin and having gone to college at Princeton. Barzun and Lukacs, on the other hand, grew-up in France and Hungary, respectively, and emigrated to the U.S. as young men. So while all three are Americans, they are also quite cosmopolitan (and multi-lingual). All three are historians; Barzun and Lukacs as academics, while Kennan became a historian after a distinguished career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Each brings a wide-ranging and very literate sensibility to history. Barzun, in addition to writing on cultural history, also published on the topics of mysteries, baseball, musicology, writing style, research, and education, and he worked with Lionel Trilling on literary projects. Lukacs describes himself as a "writer" as much as a historian. His vignettes in A Thread of Years show the eye and ear of a novelist, while his style in almost all of his writings carries a distinctive mastery of his adopted tongue. Kennan, meanwhile, gained his fame as the author of the Long Telegram of 1946 and his Foreign Policy article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947) signed as "X" (an attempt to shield his identity given his State Department rank). After leaving the Foreign Service, Kennan moved the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton where he published histories of diplomacy and foreign relations, as well as commentary on current events. How well did he write? Lukacs praises his writing, which I consider an extremely high compliment.

The final attribute that I would attribute to the three wise men arises from the difficulty one would have attempting to pigeonhole any of them politically. Kennan receives credit for launching the Cold War strategy of containment, but he came to resist the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, over reliance on nuclear weapons, the U.S. war in Viet Nam, among other positions that could alienate partisans in American politics. Lukacs and Barzun, while not writing much on contemporary U.S. politics, certainly provide historical and cultural perspectives that challenge facile distinctions of liberals and conservatives. Lukacs, especially, emphasizes the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

The more I read by and about these three individuals, the more I appreciate them. Flawless? No, of course not, but in the face of difficult issues and popular sentiments, these men stake out positions that demand our consideration and respect, and quite often, our emulation. Finally, for individuals who are growing older (like me), they represent a model of engaged and engaging thinkers who refused to go gently into that goodnight.

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