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  • Chambers, Trilling, and the Conservative Turn
  • Deborah Kisatsky (bio)
Michael Kimmage . The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. xiv + 419 pp. Notes and index. $45.00.

In this book, Michael Kimmage explores the fascinating relationship between radicalism and conservatism in American intellectual and political culture from the 1920s through the 1960s. He does so through entwined intellectual biographies of Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers, whose personal and somewhat tortured voyages from Marxism to anti-Stalinism exemplified the complicated trajectory of American thought away from interwar revolutionary flirtations towards a post-World War II political centrism that was more conservative than liberal in orientation. Together, though not in concert, the two men helped sow the seeds of neoconservatism, a fusion of religious, populist, and libertarian strands that eventually achieved political actualization in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Relying mainly on the published writings of the two figures, along with memoirs, secondary sources, and selective archival research, the book successfully traces the evolving political outlooks of Chambers and Trilling, and it compellingly elucidates the relationship between their personal histories, broader intellectual and cultural shifts in the world of letters, and the nation's embrace of conservative solutions during the 1940s and after.

Lionel Trilling was a scion of Columbia University, a literary critic, novelist, and essayist identified with the polemical New York Intellectuals of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Urbane, sophisticated, somewhat Victorian in his sensibilities, Trilling, along with his wife Diana (Rubin) Trilling, became a leading arbiter of literary taste through decades-long contributions to The Partisan Review and The New Yorker and through the publication of numerous critical works, including the sleeper hit The Liberal Imagination (1950), and one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947). Whittaker Chambers met Trilling at Columbia during the 1920s. Both moved in radical circles, which at that time and place primarily meant contributing to The Menorah Journal and The Morningside, [End Page 343] which together promulgated class-based critiques of American culture. As state-based alternatives to liberal capitalism gained credence in intellectual circles, Chambers and Trilling were drawn towards revolutionary possibility. Trilling never joined the Communist Party of the United States; he mainly expressed sympathy for Marxist principles through articles and book reviews and by briefly holding an executive office in the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, a communist front organization. Chambers went further, joining the party in 1925, writing for such Communist periodicals as The Daily Worker and serving as a courier for the pro-Soviet underground Ware Circle in Washington, D.C. By the second half of the 1930s, evidence of the Soviet Union's failure to advance truly progressive alternatives to inequality and injustice had disillusioned both men, who reconfigured themselves as anti-Stalinists. For the remainder of their lives—Chambers would die in 1961, Trilling in 1975—the two waged parallel struggles to come to terms with their radical pasts by advancing decidedly antirevolutionary visions of America. Trilling confined his efforts to the academy and to a Matthew-Arnoldesque effort to uplift the middle classes through literature. Chambers expunged his own Stalinist ghosts by testifying against the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss in 1948 and 1949. In his various stints as Time foreign news editor, journalist, essayist, autobiographer, and fiction writer, he promoted, in contrast to the Jewish and cosmopolitan Trilling, a pastoral republicanism that was religious rather than secular in orientation and self-consciously antibourgeois.

"When examined together, developments on the Left and Right outline a twofold conservative turn after World War II," Kimmage writes. "The Right turned to the center. . . . The Left turned away from radicalism; it, too, moved towards the political center" (p. 3). Trilling and Chambers symbolized this process in their respective journeys towards anticommunism. "Trilling would take the lessons of anticommunism to the Left or, to use his word of choice, to liberalism," a Cold War-era center-left variant that gained political salience in John F. Kennedy's presidency. "Chambers would do the same on the Right," dedicating himself to the "modernization" of the Republican Party through his advocacy of an intellectually robust but politically pragmatic and integrative conservatism...


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pp. 343-348
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