Robert Conquest, 1917-2015.Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Robert Conquest could easily have missed being . . . well, Robert Conquest, the most morally significant historian of the second half of the twentieth century. Now that he’s slipped away—dying in California on August 3 at age 98—it’s possible to see that he might well have failed to find his way.
In other words, Robert Conquest wasn’t destined to become a key chronicler of Soviet atrocity, a Cold War adviser to prime ministers and presidents, a central analyst of the corruption of modern intelligence in service of political ideology. He didn’t have to be the man he was, and his times pushed against him in any number of ways. The son of a trust-funded American father and an English mother, Conquest probably ought to have broken in some other fashion—say, a minor poet, earning a paycheck as a literary editor or a university librarian, a footnote in other, more famous people’s biographies.
He was intelligent, of course, but then the England of his time was full of intelligent young men, adrift after their service in the Second World War. He was brilliantly educated, at Winchester and Oxford, but that too wasn’t terribly rare, and the world seemed to be slipping away from all the bright young lights of the time. For years after the war, the vast majority of the intellectual class was convinced that, for good or for ill, Soviet communism was the destiny of civilization.
Besides, to read the literature of the era is to find a sense of Great Britain as a terribly dreary place: as barren in mind and spirit as it was in weather and economics. England seemed—at least, to the intellectualized English—like a narrow bed in a small, meanly proportioned Kensington walk-up on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
Sheer talent helped Conquest’s close friends, the novelist Kingsley Amis and the poet Philip Larkin, transcend that bleakness. And yet, even in the brio of the comedy in Amis’s 1954 Lucky Jim or the perfect diction of the poems in Larkin’s 1955 The Less Deceived, you can feel the cheerlessness that was their sense of their own place and time.
In Conquest’s case, what allowed him to escape was his unexpected seriousness—the moral cast of his mind that both kept him a precise historian and directed him to oppose communism. Recent commentators, reminiscing after his death, have delighted in speaking of his personal impishness, his literary range in everything from biography to science fiction, and his fine (if often prurient) touch at comic verse. And fair enough. In his letters, even Larkin can’t resist mocking his friend Conquest precisely for his meticulously documented work on Stalin: “What an old bore Bob is.”
His work for the Foreign Office from the end of the war until 1956—first as a press officer in Bulgaria and then at the Information Research Department—established him as a significant Sovietologist, producing such Cold War documentation as his 1961 Power and Policy in the USSR and 1965 Russia After Khrushchev. But all that could have been understood as merely his hobby, with his literary friendships his real vocation. His role in putting together the “New Lines” anthologies, for example, helped define the new “Movement” poetry of the 1950s—identifying a rebellion among young English poets against the high modernism of Eliot and Pound, and making stars of such figures as Thom Gunn, Amis, and Larkin along the way.
What made Robert Conquest different, however, was that, unlike so many of his clever contemporaries, he could bring himself to cry murder while studying something like the day in 1937 when Stalin and Molotov signed 3,167 death sentences and then went to watch a movie. Conquest had, in the structure of his mind, a moral seriousness that compelled his move from a youthful and unthinking communism to a mature understanding, in his 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow, of what Stalin’s industrialization-induced famine did in Ukraine in the 1930s: “About 20 human lives were lost,” he wrote in his preface, “not for every word, but for every letter, in this book.”
Living now more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we can forget how much Conquest and The Great Terror mattered in the years after its publication in 1968. Conquest’s historical documentation was as meticulous as the thin sources of the time allowed, and his historical intuition about what those sources meant was matchless. He saw that the Soviet system had murdered millions, and unlike so many of his time he refused to blink or turn away.
A cult classic stands the test of time.Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California newspaperman named Frank Herbert. Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil—except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.
Joseph Bottum, morning truantJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.
What explains the years of rage on campuses? Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Maybe American higher education was never all that serious about, you know, the education portion of its name. After more than a decade of teaching in the Ivy League, the philosopher George Santayana dubbed Harvard and Yale the nation’s toy Athens and toy Sparta. He actually meant it as a compliment—as much a compliment, anyway, as he could muster. Santayana resigned his Harvard professorship in 1912 and moved to Europe.
Joseph Bottum, book burnerMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day. Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Setting that certain feeling to music.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I found an error in Ted Gioia’s new history of love songs. It’s late in this 336-page book, when he mentions that Simon and Garfunkel gave their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson” to the movie soundtrack for The Graduate. As it happens, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson was first a character in the 1967 movie, and the little koo-koo-ka-choo filler they composed for her they developed into a full song only after the movie’s success.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.