The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: Volume II and A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald, edited by Michael Wrezsin.
November 11, 2001        

The art of letter writing suffered three grievous blows in the twentieth century: the telephone, television, and e-mail. (The first and the last for obvious reasons; television because it makes us all more passive, superficial, and inarticulate – even those who don’t watch, since they must live among those who do.) There is reason to doubt – in fact, there is not much reason to believe – that the letter collection will survive as a literary form for many more decades. What our wired descendants will be missing is on display in these two extraordinarily rich volumes.

Bertrand Russell achieved great distinction in (at least) four spheres: as a mathematical philosopher, as a popular author, as a political activist, and as a lover. Letters about the last two endeavors predominate in The Public Years. Actually, Russell’s life before 1914 was not entirely private. The publication in 1910 of his (and Alfred North Whitehead’s) Principia Mathematica had made him an intellectual celebrity. But when, horrified by the outbreak of World War I, he began speaking and writing against the war, even going briefly to prison, he became one of the most famous, or notorious, men in England.

In 1911 Russell entered on a grand passion with Lady Ottoline Morrell, scion of a ducal family, wife of a member of Parliament, and the leading literary hostess of the time. For the hitherto lonely, unworldly, ascetic Russell, the affair kindled an emotional bonfire. Because they could only meet infrequently – Russell, too, was married – he poured out a torrent of impassioned love letters. (Perhaps the sexual revolution is also implicated in the decline of letter-writing, having made adultery and fornication so much easier and thereby rendered sublimation obsolete.)

Lady Ottoline often kept Russell at arm’s length, so his ardor had cooled a little by 1916, when he met the actress and fellow activist Colette O’Neil. She too was gifted, aristocratic, and married. This made for several years more of white-hot correspondence.

Colette’s first impression, she later wrote, was that “one did not want any but very real talk with Russell.” [p. 80] That is what one gets in his letters, too. The eloquence and intensity levels here are remarkably high and consistent. There are in the love letters, it is true, a few too many “Darling!”s and “I do so wish”s and the occasional embarrassing effusion, such as: “I am utterly worn out by the longing for your arms and your lips … I do not know how to live through the hours that remain. Till then, goodbye, my soul cries out to you.” [122] But there are also, in calmer moments, many delightful flickers of Russell’s characteristic dry wit.

The political letters, too, are sometimes overwrought – Russell was given to predicting the imminent demise of civilization and extermination of humanity. Still, he erred on the right side. The wisdom-to-windiness quotient here is very creditable, and even in the gravest crises Russell’s ear for official cant was unerring. One may and should laugh at Russell occasionally, both as a lover and a prophet. But on the whole, one’s attitude can hardly help being more like stunned admiration. Such a combination of mental power, moral passion, and verbal skill does not occur many times in a millennium.

Nicholas Griffin has done a superb job introducing and annotating the letters, producing not merely a collection but an “epistolary biography,” with much narrative momentum and few loose threads. The editing of A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald is much more casual – perhaps understandably, since most relevant information about the life can be found in editor Michael Wreszin’s fine 1994 biography of Macdonald, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition. And anyway, Macdonald's life, like just about everyone else’s, was less public and eventful than Russell’s.

Macdonald did not always have a moral temper. At Exeter he and two friends founded the Hedonist Club, dedicated to literature and frivolity, whose motto was “Cynicism, Estheticism, Criticism, Pessimism.” During the Great Depression, however, he got interested in politics while working for Time and Fortune. After several years there, he sent Henry Luce a long letter demonstrating those magazines’ conservative bias. Luce was irritated. A few pages later in A Moral Temper we come upon another long letter, in which Macdonald lectures Frieda Kirchwey about the Nation’s liberal/Stalinist bias. Kirchwey, too, was irritated. Having failed to set America’s editors straight, Macdonald had no choice but to start his own magazine, which (along with Phillip Rahv and William Phillips) he did in 1937: viz, Partisan Review.

We’ve all read a lot about the Partisanskis. But some of us can’t get enough. Macdonald was at the epicenter, so there are letters here to T. S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Phillip Rahv, Irving Howe, C. Wright Mills, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Victor Serge, Arthur Schlesinger, and Robert Lowell, among others. Nicola Chiaromonte, the Italian anarchist and literary critic, was perhaps Macdonald’s closest friend, and the letters to him are especially revealing. Delmore Schwartz was also a good friend; their mutual regard survived a wryly indignant letter from Macdonald that begins: “God save me from my friends, if you’re typical! So you defend me, you rat, against your genteel-academic colleagues by saying that neurotic antagonism is the basis of my intellectual existence and my predictions never come true, but that I am a master of exposition and also openhearted. In future, do me a favor and either keep silent or join the Enemy.” [107]

Like Russell, Macdonald responded to a popular war with fervent opposition. He left Partisan Review and started another magazine, Politics. It was small and scrappy and lasted only five years (1944-49), but it was amazingly good, in part because its editorial voice was so fresh, direct, and untrammeled – much like Macdonald’s in his letters.

Of course there are troubled letters, too, particularly to Chiaromonte and to Joan Colebrook, who may have been the love of his life. But even when Macdonald’s spirits flagged, his prose kept its brio. He seems to have been as incapable of penning a vapid or ungainly sentence as he was of uttering a devious or ungenerous sentiment. And his freedom from self-importance was awe- (and affection-)inspiring.

At one point in A Moral Temper Macdonald grumbles to a correspondent about the frequent condescension of his contemporaries: “I don’t see why a drastic rejection of what is necessarily means pure-heart-but-woolly-wit.” [267] They were right about his purity of heart; but the keenness of Macdonald’s wits is everywhere apparent in these marvellous letters.