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Our Year in Reading Goes On

By (December 1, 2011) No Comment

A look back at some of the reading we did at Open Letters in 2011

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Kennen McCarthy
Lisa Peet
Sam Sacks
Joanna Scutts
Greg Waldmann

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and host of Novel Readings

Every year I read good books and bad books, books that excite me and books that disappoint me, books I want to read again and books I’m sorry to have taken time for. It’s not every year, though, that I read books that make me feel as if I have expanded my own circle of friends as well as of ideas, which is how I felt this year as I began at last to read the books of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby. I say “at last” because Brittain’s autobiography Testament of Youth (1933) has been on my ‘to read’ list for years, but I had never quite got around to it, mostly because I expected it would be at once traumatic and sentimental. It is indeed the former, but not the latter, and its resolute intellectualism made it only the more moving to me: Brittain’s mourning is of both heart and mind. Recording in her girlish diary her ecstasy at reading George Eliot’s Romola, Brittain wonders when she will experience “the moments of supreme emotion in which all lesser feelings are merged, and which leave one’s spirit different for evermore.” For her, that time arrived with the onset of World War I, among the tragically many victims of which were her brother and her fiancé. Brittain’s account of her own work as a nurse conveys the struggles of the home front along with the devastation of the battlefield, putting a human face on what Wilfred Owen called “the pity of war”–as here, when a letter arrives posthumously from a dear friend at the front:

Characteristically he concluded his letter with the haunting lines that must have nerved many a reluctant young soldier to brave the death from which body and spirit shrank so pitifully:

War knows no power. Safe shall be my going . . .
Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And, if these poor limbs die, safest of all.

“Rupert Brooke,” he added, “is great and his faith also great. If destiny is willing I will write later.”

Well, I thought, destiny was not willing, and I shall not see that graceful, generous handwriting on any envelope any more.

Testament of Youth is profound and memorable as a personal perspective on a critical historical moment. But it was Brittain herself I found most compelling, especially her determination to think through her own painful experience and to convert her emotional response into meaningful action.

After the war, Brittain was a passionate advocate for both feminism and pacificism, working as a journalist and speaker alongside her close friend Winifred Holtby, best known today for her last novel, South Riding (1936). The story of the remarkably close and mutually sustaining relationship between Brittain and Holtby–cut short by Holtby’s early death–is told in Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940). Many of Brittain’s and Holtby’s articles were collected in an excellent 1985 Virago Press edition called Testament of a Generation; topics range from the woman’s movement (“I am constantly reprimanded for ‘flogging the dead horse of Feminism,’” Holtby observes; “I do not think the horse is dead”) to the rise of Nazism and the suppression of dissent in South Africa–all of which Holtby eloquently links to fundamental “failures of the imagination,” which are “among the most fruitful sources of injustice in the world”:

They are more common than deliberate sadism, more insidious than fear. Indeed, they breed fear. . . . The Jews to Nazi Germany, the Catholics to the Ku Klux Klan, Negroes to a southern states lynching party, women to eighteenth-century liberals – they are not human; they need not be accorded human privileges. The mind closes against any conception of their own point of view.

Both Brittain and Holtby worked against “failures of the imagination” through fiction as well as non-fiction. Brittain’s novels are largely unknown today, and after reading her first, The Dark Tide (1923), I have some idea why: in this work, which Brittain herself considered “a surprisingly melodramatic and immature production,” Brittain shows little talent for subordinating strongly felt ideas to the demands of story and character. And yet even in this strange, uneven book, Brittain’s ruthlessly confrontational intelligence is everywhere in evidence. The Dark Tide tells of the difficult friendship of two women, Daphne and Virginia, who are conspicuously similar to Brittain and Holtby. Intellectual and romantic competitors at Oxford, they end the novel allies after struggling through experiences that challenge their initial easy assumptions about the compatibility of independence and love, and about satisfying the claims of both public and private morality. The novel is particularly astute and sensitive in its portrayal of Daphne’s disintegrating marriage; here, as in her autobiography, Brittain emphasizes her conviction that marriage cannot be seen as the easy answer to woman’s destiny:

In spite of the feminine family tradition and the relentless social pressure which had placed an artificial emphasis on marriage for all women born, like myself, in the eighteen-nineties, I had always held and still believed it to be irrelevant to the main purpose of life. For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself.

In The Dark Tide, marriage is precisely a devastating hindrance, one against which we measure the value of Virginia’s support and friendship.

The more I learned about these dynamic women, living their lives to the full both personally and politically, the more I liked them and the more I wanted to know about them, to listen to them, to be part of their circle of people caring, thinking, and acting to defend their ideals. I’m looking forward to reading more of their work next year, including more of their fiction as well as Testament of Experience (1957), which follows Brittain through the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s.

Kennen McCarthy, Compositor

My most enjoyable read this year was Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel The Way We Live Now. It describes – and satirizes – a shift in culture in late Victorian society, and despite being a hefty tome, The Way We Live Now is never anything but accessible from beginning to end. The story bustles to life in its panoramic scope, and I was absorbed immediately in how lifelike Trollope’s fictional world feels. Characters are given a rich amount of expression on the page through numerous sub-plots that throw light on the society around them. The way I think Trollope shines best is in his handling of a large cast of characters.

There are three main threads of Trollope’s tale, the chief of which concerns the appearance of Augustus Melmotte in London society. Melmotte is reputed to have an enormous fortune and great financial skill, but only as a swindler; his character is opportunistic and amoral, but with a veneer of grace. He rises exponentially in society and settles a large backup fortune on his only daughter, Marie, in hopes that she marries into high society. The Carbury family occupies another major plot line; the novel starts off with Lady Carbury, an aspiring (and scheming!) writer whose plan for literary success hinges on expedience and acclaim-mongering above all else. She wants more for her children. Her son, Felix Carbury, is an income-siphoning dandy who seeks to marry Marie Melmotte solely for the wealth she will provide. On the other hand, Hetta Carbury is being strategically urged by her mother to marry the squire Roger Carbury, despite her lack of romantic love for the man and her amorous disposition toward Paul Montague. Lady Carbury is also an opportunist, though guided by a rose-tinted morality rather than the greed that drives Melmotte. No two characters are unrelated in a complex series of interconnections fleshed out as the plot develops.

Always on the look-out for an engaging, masterful work to read, I couldn’t help but feel that I struck gold with The Way We Live Now. It keeps a consistent voice and flow throughout its hundreds of pages, and never bogged me down for an instant in stalled passages or tepid plot development, as has been my occasional experience with large novels. A tremendously tedious example of this was another long novel I read this year, Atlas Shrugged; the plot of that story crumbles disastrously under its own weight, and the characters serve more as mouthpieces for the author’s message than actual, you know, people. Take this passage from The Way We Live Now, for instance:

[Roger Carbury] could not say to himself that [Paul Montague] had not been treacherous to him, nor could he forgive the man’s supposed treason. But he did tell himself very plainly that in comparison with Hetta the man was nothing to him. It could hardly be worth his while to maintain a quarrel with the man if he were once able to assure Hetta that she, as the wife of another man, should still be dear to him as a friend might be dear. He was well aware that such assurance, such forgiveness, must contain very much. It it were to be so, Hetta’s child must take the name of Carbury and must be to him as his heir,– as near as possible to his own child. In her favour he must throw aside that law of primogeniture which to him was so sacred that he had been hitherto minded to make Sir Felix his heir in spite of the absolute unfitness of the wretched young man. All this must be changed, should he be able to persuade himself to give his consent to the marriage. In such case Carbury must be the home of the married couple, as far as he could induce them to make it so. There must be born the future infant to whose existence he was already looking forward with some idea that in hid old age he might there find comfort. In such case, though he should never again be able to love Paul Montague in his heart of hearts, he must live with him for her sake on affectionate terms. He must forgive Hetta altogether,– as though there had been no fault; and he must strive to forgive the man’s fault as best he might. Struggling as he was to be generous, passionately fond as he was of justice, yet he did not know how to be just himself. He could not see that he in truth had been to no extent ill-used…

Nevertheless, when he rose from the wall he had resolved that Hetta should be pardoned entirely, and that Paul Montague should be treated as though he were pardoned. As for himself,– the chances of the world had been unkind to him and he would submit to them!

This kind of personal expression could never be found in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, because it requires in the author a sort of empathy absent from Rand’s philosophy. The experience of that book was in most ways the direct inverse of reading The Way We Live Now. A slavish adherence to an ideology gets the message across but pales entirely in comparison to a full social palette; many ideologies are present in The Way We Live Now, but to serve as backdrop and coloring for the human relations we see in all their intricacies, which makes for a more rich, nuanced read. Every reader, I think, has had the experience of digging into a large novel with at least a half-expectation that it could turn grueling. What if the writing is too soft, too dense, just plain poor? What if the voice or voices are uninteresting? The supreme satisfaction that comes from an engaging read that pulls you along apace with it, is a return on the gamble. The Way We Live Now doesn’t disappoint!

Lisa Peet, host of Like Fire

Out of everything I read in 2011, from the earnestly allegorical to the coolly factual to the wackily enjoyable—and there were several in all those categories, plus a few more besides—two come to mind with almost identical warm thrills of book nostalgia. The question is, what’s so similar about them? Both Michael Crummey’s Galore and Patrick De Witt’s The Sisters Brothers are character-driven and quirky, although quirky’s never been much of a selling point for me. And they’re set in a rough-and-tumble kind of frontier past, offering views of 19th-century North America from the north and the west, Newfoundland and San Francisco, respectively. Otherwise, though, they’re very different stories.

Galore is a multigenerational saga featuring the Sellerses and the Devines, two families warring, falling in love, and eyeing each other with mutual suspicion in the little fishing village of Paradise Deep. There are elements both gritty and mythic, with clashes between Catholics and Protestants, labor and management, witches and moneylenders. Not to mention a mute albino who is found, at the book’s beginning, in the belly of a whale. So yes, there is a degree of magic realism, but if that’s not a deal-breaker you’re also in for some deeply memorable characters, wonderful writing, and the satisfying sense of having been haunted.

The Sisters Brothers, on the other hand, is all close narrative breathing down your shirtfront. It’s the tale of Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie, a couple of mismatched guns for hire on the road to San Francisco, where they’ve been contracted to kill a man with the charming name of Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli does the telling, in an unforgettable voice that echoes the stilted formality of True Grit—did no one in the Wild West understand how to use contractions?—with the alienation of a pistol-toting Holden Caulfield. While I’m not big on audiobooks, The Sisters Brothers and Eli’s understated tough-guy poetics would lend themselves perfectly to the format—his descriptions of their misadventures and the strange, sad characters they meet along the way make you want to drop everything and listen.

And this, I decided, is why these two novels—aside from being a couple of my favorite reads this year in their own right—live together in my mind. Both are stories told in the way of the seasoned raconteur; Crummey’s swoops up and out like a seabird, showing us what a hundred years of superstition and unrequited love can do to a town, while De Witt’s leans in close by the campfire, most likely with whiskey breath, with talk of mayhem and men’s odysseys. Both books pick you up and drop you someplace you feel you might know, but it turns out you don’t—which is half the fun. And both answer the reader’s request to tell me a story, and do a hell of a fine job in the process.

Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief

It’s a hard sell, pushing literary criticism as pleasure reading. The difficulty is that reading anything, especially novels or poetry, has become increasingly categorized in the public imagination as a somewhat rarefied leisure pursuit, like playing golf. Reading criticism, then, can come to seem like an elaboration for those few with a real mania for the pastime, like hiring a pro to analyze your swing.

But the truth is that good collections of criticism can be engaging and satisfying like no other kind of book. The essays within them are short enough to be consumed in one sitting. The writing tends to be straightforward and on-the-surface. The purposes of the pieces are to charm, to teach, and also to provoke—and therefore give rise to arguments. Few forms of writing address the reader so directly as criticism, and it has always seemed to me a shame that book clubs confine themselves to fiction, when criticism is written in the full expectation of discussion and debate (however much the critics themselves may snuffle at having their judgments challenged).

One of the best collections I read this year, and surely a book designed to spur debate, is a book of essays by Dwight MacDonald called Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books), of which the highlight is the title piece written in 1960. This is a marvelously ambitious and delightfully waspish root-and-branch demolition of virtually every form of postwar American art and entertainment—it’s snobbery in its most down-to-earth and conversable style. MacDonald’s first target, Masscult, is box office and bestseller fare, commercialized “parodies of High Culture … fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen.” This is art-like simulacra that has been packaged and sold like cereal (Norman Rockwell, Cecil B. DeMille, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Life Magazine all come in for thrashings).

Even more insidious, however, is the “middlebrow compromise” Midcult, which Macdonald identifies as the forms of art and intellectualism that have been diluted and sweetened to appeal to the suburbs:

Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse, i.e., they get John Hersey instead of Gene Stratton Porter. Midcult is the transition from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the gay tough lyrics of Pal Joey, a spontaneous expression of a real place called Broadway, to the folk-fakery of Oklahoma! and the orotund sentimentalities of South Pacific.

Middle-class taste has very few skeptics these days, at least none as eloquent and prosecutorial as MacDonald (he was a sometime Communist, but at heart was simply a contrarian). Reading this book rocks you on your heels and demands that you fight back in defense of your own notions of art and expression.

The Good of the Novel, an new anthology of essays from Continuum Press about some of the most esteemed works of fiction from the past twenty years, is a different sort of collection, one intended as an aid rather than a goad. The editors Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan set out with the twin goals of celebrating “evaluative literary criticism, notably in the form of the long review-essay” (a cherished form here at Open Letters) and establishing some common ground for the innumerable novels that pour forth from publishing houses every year.

On the first count they are wonderfully successful. The essays included here, from James Wood, Tessa Hadley, and Frances Wilson among many others, are models of beguiling, contemplative, and beautiful writing. Each one is a brief, restorative sauna of fine prose. Of Martin Amis, Jason Cowley writes, “Many of [his] best non-fiction pieces are enriched by love—the love he feels for his father and siblings and children and for the writers and books that mean most to him. There is no love in his fiction, certainly for or between characters. There is only love of style, something that precedes and is anterior to the fiction.” This is at the start of Mary Hawthorne’s exquisite look at the (countless) novels of Anita Brookner:

Every year or so, since 1981, when Brookner published her first novel, the autobiographical A Start in Life, at the age of fifty-three, like Sisyphus, her soulmate, she has shouldered one stone after another to the top of the hill and watched it descend again, as shortly she begins contemplating her next battle against inexorable fate—which is to say, the cruel indifference of the gods toward the dutiful, the good, and the well-behaved

It must be said that the editors’ hope of finding connected themes in these essays has largely gone unfulfilled—the essayists they commissioned are not very interested in grand syntheses, and instead dwell on different and specific elements of their given novels. But this too is immensely interesting—a thrillingly diverse and dynamic galaxy of fiction emerges from this collection, elucidated by some of the best critics writing today.

Joanna Scutts, Editor

A year is a long time in reading, and in teaching reading. Having just finished reading Genesis with my students—“Were they really, like actually nine hundred years old?”—I am less certain about what a year is and how long it lasts than usual. While the winter holidays and the year-end lists are often a time for hefty blockbusters, I’m not feeling the urge to lug 1Q84 on the subway just yet. Instead, I’ve been enjoying a few one-sitting treats.

I’ve lived in New York for eight years and fantasized about it for longer than that, so I’ve no idea how it’s taken me so long to get to E.B. White’s brief and perfect 1949 essay Here is New York. Although it was written in the summertime and the un-air-conditioned heat hangs heavy, it seems to fit with this colder, sparklier season, when so many people come to New York looking for a fantasy version of the city. White’s New York is a constantly changing and an insanely overcrowded arena that’s always one hearty shove away from violent breakdown, but which nevertheless just works, and seduces without seeming to make any effort—just like the book. It’s impossible to quote from. Pick up a copy of the neat little hardcover from The Little Bookroom, find a quiet diner booth, and enjoy. I also re-read Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer this summer; a book that’s fallen somewhat out of critical favor, and which doesn’t necessarily add up to much more than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are quite dazzling, and it’s well worth going back to, especially if you’ve been watching Ken Burns’s Prohibition and Boardwalk Empire and want to keep imaginatively partying like it’s 1925.

My year in reading is always likely to feature some of the war in which John Dos Passos drove ambulances on the Western Front. This year I’ve gone back a couple of times to Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, from 1918—a lurid, lyrical little story about a wealthy English landowner who gets too close to a shell-blast in the trenches and is shipped back to his glamorous country house having lost fifteen years of his memory. He doesn’t recognize his cover-girl wife and thinks he’s still in love with a local girl who’s now a dowdy and downtrodden housewife; the story is narrated by his cousin, who is in turn, in love with him. It’s ninety pages long, but it packs a whole heap of Freudian conflict into them, from the repressed desire of the narrator to the ghostly presence of not one but two dead baby boys (West wrote the novel when she was sequestered looking after her own illegitimate son by H.G. Wells.) Jane Marcus’s collection of West’s funny, spirited early feminist and socialist journalism, The Young Rebecca, is also a treat.

Two more WWI recommendations: Edith Wharton’s war journalism for Scribners, later collected as Fighting France, is available under that title in a new edition from the wonderful Hesperus Press, with a foreword by Colm Tóibín. Wharton captures the incongruity of war, its suddenness and its inconvenience that are far more strongly felt at first than any real danger—partly because her own presence on the front line is itself so incongruous. She bustles her way right up to the ‘spectacle’ of war: when a local woman tells Wharton’s party that a shell has fallen nearby, and that the fighting is visible from a nearby garden, the middle-aged novelist exclaims immediately, “It did not take us long to reach that garden!”

The cannons were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass, and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was suddenly brought close to us—the rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightning and white puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering guns, and the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.

A beautiful piece of writing about the aftermath and memory of the war, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, published in the UK in 1994, came out this year in the US for the first time from Vintage. Dyer’s elliptical, autobiographical style suits his subject surprisingly well, and can be credited with opening the war up to more iconoclastic and inventive historical approaches, that take seriously the impact of massive loss and mass memorialization on the surviving populations.

And on a totally different, more festive note, Plato’s Symposium is great to read the day after a particularly good party. It’s about the meaning of love, by which we really mean the meaning of idealism, virtue, and the good life, as hashed out by a bunch of hungover Athenians—come for the philosophy, stay for the ne’er-do-well aristocrat Alcibiades’ story of his failed attempts to seduce Socrates. Or the other way around. (In Woodruff and Nehamas’s translation, his opening line is: “Good evening gentlemen. I’m plastered.”) Looking forward, I’m going to keep going with reflections on drinking together, eating together, and what it means to do both, with the help of Adam Gopnik’s new essay collection The Table Comes First:

We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. We alone know our fun. The sweetness in our morning coffee is at once a feeling, an idea, and a memory. Eating is an intelligent act, or it’s merely an animal one. And what makes it intelligent is the company of other mouths and minds. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.

Happy holidays, and happy eating!

Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor

Most of the books I review each year are about politics and current events. It is, unfortunately, a sorry genre plagued by hacks—congressmen, journalists, TV personalities. Politicians write books to serve an upcoming campaign or to justify what they’ve done in office. In either case, few have the ability to write or think past the cant they practice in public life. Most journalists and entertainers produce terribly overheated prose; if they’re not crippling sentences with florid drama, they’re murdering them with nautical metaphors and sports cliches. In other words, most of the books I read each year are very, very bad.

But there are always exceptions, and I read outside the field as much as I can. After all, these books of the moment are replaceable drafts of the history to be written later, and without history, there is no frame of reference for the present. I also read fiction and poetry, as every non-fiction writer should. I know too many political junkies and history enthusiasts who disdain the thought, but they have no idea what they’re missing. Historians look from the outside-in, after the fact, relying even in the best case on partial evidence and educated theory. The events they try to understand turn on the motivations of rulers and societies, but they don’t have the novelist’s freedom to explore people and personalities from the inside, or the poet’s ability to deal in pure sensation. The best books I read this year had something of this insight.

Peter Camenzind, now over a hundred years old, was Hermann Hesse’s first novel. The main character, forerunner of all Hesse’s wanderers, leaves his mountain village in Switzerland to seek his place in the world as a great poet. Instead he finds moderate success as a man of letters and a string of broken relationships. Rootless, he travels, living and drinking in excess, hoping for something to happen. It’s a young man’s novel. The later portions, though sometimes cleverly wrought, are clearly aspirational, and the ending, where the protagonist discovers pure love caring for an invalid, is too pat; there’s a didactic air the author can’t quite suppress. But Hesse’s surging, poetic style can be very beautiful, and he knows the writer’s life, such as that sinking moment when a novice first realizes how hard it is going to be:

I had already begun the destruction of my juvenilia—my scribbling had become suspicious to me—when I came upon a few volumes of Gottfried Keller’s works, which I immediately read two or three times in succession. Then I suddenly realized how far removed my stillborn pipe dreams were from real, genuine, austere art. I burned my poems and stories, and with some of the embarrassed feeling that accompanies a hangover, I looked soberly and sadly out at the world.

Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant, takes a dimmer view of love and life in general. It’s a spare novel, a hundred small pages dedicated entirely to the torrid feelings of the narrator. You’ll search in vain for a description of the weather or the facade of a building. This approach keeps the romantic vicissitudes from grating, and allows Constant to mirror the narrowness of obsessive love; when the narrator at last emerges from his frenzied but socially unacceptable affair, his lover dead, his prospects wasted, the world he turned his back on has passed him by. He dies obscurely in a cheap inn.

Aside from paucity of evidence, perhaps the most difficult challenge for a historian is reproducing the motivations novelists take for granted. But some live through the times they chronicle, and if their canvas is wide, they can capture the spirit (or pathos) of an age. Joachim Fest lived through Nazi Germany, and his Hitler, the first biography written in German, is still among the best forty years after its publication. It’s a difficult book to recommend in the normal way, because any worthy biography of the man must also be trying. So it is with this one. Fest’s prose is dense, analytical, but never donnish. Married to its subject, the result can be scary, like some wardroom nightmare. Hitler is a psychological profile of Germany and Europe as much as it is a biography of the dictator, and the patterns Fest teases out of those societies are quieting. Hitler gave expression in the most extreme fashion to Europe’s strongest crosscurrents – anti-Semitism, anti-communism, nationalism, the veneration of order and militarism, and the stifling anxiety begotten by the creative destruction of capitalism and modernity. Through violence and shifting rhetoric he appealed to one side and then the other, kept his enemies off balance, divided, and then jumped through the space between to seize land and power. Hitler understood that to succeed, a movement needed more than policies. As Fest puts it,

The success of Fascism in contrast to many of its rivals was in large part due to its perceiving the essence of the crisis, of which it was itself the symptom. All the other parties affirmed the process of industrialization and emancipation, whereas the Fascists, evidently sharing the universal anxiety, tried to deal with it by translating it into violent action and histrionics. They also managed to leaven boring, prosaic everyday life by romantic rituals: torchlight processions, standards, death’s heads, battle cries, shouts of Heil… They presented men with modern tasks disguised in the costumery of the past. They deprecated material concerns and treated “politics as an area of self-denial and sacrifice of the individual for an idea.” In taking this line they were addressing themselves to deeper needs than those who promised the masses higher wages.

Hitler’s “unshakable confidence, which often seemed sheer madness, was based on the conviction that he was the only real revolutionary, that he had broken free of the existing system by reinstating the rights of human instincts.” Thus fascism, “sprung from the anxieties of the age…was an elemental uprising in favor of authority, a revolt on behalf of order.” In retrospect, the rise of the Third Reich, so well explained by Fest, is history’s most tragic example of the hard truth that in times of adversity and change, populism is most likely to find itself a tool of reactionaries.


Our Year in Reading Begins


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