George Kennan: A Writing Life

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There were two George F. Kennans. The first was the well-known diplomat and ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—a tough political realist and man of the world who gained fame as the theorist of America’s Cold War “containment” strategy. This was a “persona” that Kennan adopted in order to carry out his professional responsibilities. The second, largely unknown, but real George Kennan was a writer and aesthete—a shy, lonely man who felt alienated from both his country and his times, and a man who made major contributions to American literature.

Thus argues Lee Congdon in George Kennan: A Writing Life, a groundbreaking study of Kennan’s life and thought. Congdon narrates Kennan’s legendary work in the foreign service, his later career as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and the schools of thought to which he made significant contributions: political realism, antidemocratic social and political criticism, Spenglerian gloom, and conservative cultural analysis. Congdon concludes that notwithstanding his great accomplishments as a diplomat and geopolitical strategist, Kennan merits consideration above all else as an original and penetrating American writer.

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About the Author:

Lee Congdon is Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison University, where he taught for thirty-three years. He is the author of a trilogy on twentieth-century Hungarian intellectuals and coeditor of two volumes on the Hungarian Revolution. In 1999 the Republic of Hungary decorated him with its Order of Merit. Congdon was a Visiting Member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1981–82, and a Summer Visitor at the institute in 2007. He has written hundreds of articles, essays, and reviews on history, philosophy, literature, politics, and baseball.

From Booklist:

The prodigious writing output of the late diplomat and historian George Kennan (1904–2005) occupies center stage here. Since Kennan received some of the most prestigious literary awards (both the Pulitzer and Bancroft), this subject extends beyond academic interest; just how far, libraries might gauge by the circulation performance of the recent biographical sketch George Kennan, by John Lukacs (2007). Congdon, also a historian, paraphrases the content of Kennan’s histories, most of which dealt with the origin and consequences of World War I, and draws from these summaries Kennan’s sense of tragedy and human frailty, which was central to his philosophical outlook. Kennan himself spelled that out in his Around the Cragged Hill (1993); the alienation from contemporary America evident in its pages finds its precursors in Congdon’s inspections of Kennan’s diary entries, letters, and current-events commentaries in popular media. Judging that Kennan’s literary craft will buoy his oeuvre over time, Congdon’s assessment should appeal to admirers of Kennan or of narrative history in general. --Gilbert Taylor

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