Summoning the Ghost of Isaiah Berlin

By Ilan Stavans

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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Letters 1928-1946: Isaiah Berlin

Edited by Henry Hardy

Cambridge University Press, 755 pages, $40.


A couple of years ago, while visiting the offices of The Atlantic Monthly, I commented on my admiration of Isaiah Berlin to a friend of mine, Cullen Murphy, the magazine’s executive editor. Few modern thinkers strike me as being as stimulating, coherent and lucid as Berlin. His life-long study of freedom as a curtailed human endeavor, his analysis of the roots on the Enlightenment and his emblematic life as an academic at Oxford all have been continued sources of stimulation. Finally I admitted to Murphy my deep wish to have met Berlin himself. I brought up the famous incident of 1944, in which Winston Churchill confused Isaiah with Irving Berlin — and not, as some have put it, the other way around.

By then, Isaiah Berlin — known in his family as Shaya — having witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, had worked for the British Embassy in New York and for the British Information Services. His brilliant reports were legendary, and he was known in London and Washington political circles as a shrewd student of diplomacy. Apparently, Churchill, at his wife’s request, invited Irving Berlin, composer of “White Christmas,” to a small party. Churchill sat next to him, assuming he was the political thinker, and asked: “Mr. Berlin, what’s the most important piece of work you’ve done for us lately, in your opinion? Do you think Roosevelt will be re-elected this year?” Irving Berlin answered: “Well, in the past I’ve voted for him myself. This year, I’m not sure.” Churchill: “Mr. Berlin, when do you think the European War is gong to end?” Berlin: “Sir, I shall never forget this moment. When I go back to my own country, I shall tell my children and my children’s children that in the spring of 1944 the prime minister of Great Britain asked me when the European War was going to end.”

As it turns out, Murphy told me, Isaiah Berlin had written for the Atlantic — specifically, a 1949 review of one of Winston Churchill’s books. Murphy proceeded to go to the archives; he dug out a letter and handed me a photocopy of it as a present. I read it right then and there, and immediately recognized Berlin’s voice: candid, pungent, well organized. In it, Berlin responded to editorial questions posed to him, and talked about, among other topics, the Cold War, American labor unions, Churchill and the Irving Berlin misunderstanding.

I knew that Berlin had been a prolific correspondent and that Murphy’s present was but a pebble on a long stretch of beach. Henry Hardy, a fellow at Wolfson College in Oxford — which Berlin was instrumental in founding — and the tireless editor of Berlin’s papers, now has released “Isaiah Berlin, Letters 1928-1946,” the first of what promises to be a triptych of invaluable epistolary volumes. It commences with Berlin’s first letter to G.K. Chesterton, and concludes with a letter from the British Embassy in Washington just as he is about to return to Oxford a year after World War II ended, to become an academic. In between are revelatory letters from London, Oxford, New York, Washington, Moscow and Leningrad to his parents, friends (including Marion Frankfurter and Stephen Spender) and colleagues (Maurice Bowra), and to admired strangers (Ursula Niebuhr) — all written with enviable acumen. Maybe the age of e-mail has brought us all a bit closer, but a quick glance at this book is all one needs to conclude that it also has made us less careful about style and syntax.

The book includes numerous zesty confessions. “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends,” as Berlin once said. The Churchill anecdote is recounted in it, as well as scores of others. The result is a map to Berlin’s heart before he reached the age of 39. Hardy includes, among other items, photographs, chronologies, family trees, glossaries, facsimiles, samples of his dispatches from Washington, some of his essays on freedom, and Zionist politics and book reports that he made for the British publisher Faber & Faber. (The footnotes alone are copious. Indeed, if this collection is said to have a limitation, it is found in the overzealousness of its editor: Hardy believes that everything needs to be annotated and contextualized — to the point of dizziness.)

Without Hardy, Berlin’s reputation today would be far smaller. As a trustee of his estate, he has, alone, edited a dozen books of Berlin’s work (this one included), and has co-edited a couple more with Aileen Kelly and Roger Hausheer. Yes, Hardy’s devotion may verge on the pathological. I’ve even heard folks ask: Has he become Berlin’s slave? But the answer is no. He is to Berlin what James Boswell was to Samuel Johnson: at once a keeper and a sharer of the master’s legacy.

Anyway, for those us who never had a chance to meet Berlin, “Letters” is a way to summon his ghost. The book opens with a plea by Berlin to those with letters to please forward them to Hardy so that he can include them in the subsequent volumes. Of course, I’ve already sent him a photocopy of the photocopy that Cullen Murphy gave me.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and a professor of poetry at Columbia University. His “Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature” is due out in January 2005, and Graywolf Press will bring out his “Dictionary Days” in April 2005.

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