Synopses & Reviews
The Conservative Turn
tells the story of postwar America's political evolution through two fascinating figures: Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers. Born at the turn of the twentieth century, they were college classmates who went on to intellectual prominence, sharing the questions, crises, and challenges of their generation.
A spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Chambers became the main witness in the 1948 trial of Alger Hiss, which ended in Hiss's conviction for perjury. The trial advanced the careers of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy and marked the beginning of the Cold War mood in America. Chambers was also a major conservative thinker, a theorist of the postwar conservative movement.
Meanwhile, in the 1940s and 1950s, the literary critic Trilling wrote important essays that encouraged liberals to disown their radical past and to embrace a balanced maturity. Trilling's liberal anti-communism was highly influential, culminating politically in the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Kimmage argues that the divergent careers of these two men exemplify important developments in postwar American politics: the emergence of modern conservatism and the rise of moderate liberalism, crucially shaped by anti-communism. Taken together, these developments constitute a conservative turn in American political and intellectual life--a turn that continues to shape America's political landscape.
Kimmage offers a rich and detailed account of one of the great intellectual dramas in 20th-century American history: the left's romance with Soviet Communism, and its painful disillusionment...Kimmage offers a new perspective on this familiar story by focusing on an unlikely pair of protagonists. Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers could not have been more different in terms of personality and background...Kimmage follows Chambers's subsequent career and offers a close reading of his memoir, Witness, which became one of Ronald Reagan's favorite books. Between Witness and The Middle of the Journey, Chambers and Trilling helped at once to create and to document the conservative turn in mid-century American politics. Kimmage's book offers a thorough guide to this still powerfully resonant chapter in our history. Joseph Shattan - American Spectator
On the face of it, no two American intellectuals in the late 1940s were more dissimilar than Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers...It is the substantial merit of Michael Kimmage's excellent study, The Conservative Turn, that by the time one finishes reading it, these differences seem insignificant compared to what Trilling and Chambers had, or came to have, in common. Jeffrey Hart - American Conservative
Michael Kimmage is an old-fashioned intellectual historian, and I mean that as a compliment. What is more, he is a real writer. His extraordinary book is one of the few studies of the making of Cold War liberalism that is as alive to personality and literary quality as to politics. He provides a fuller and fairer analysis of both men's work, with splendid comparative comments, than I have read anywhere else. Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Indispensable to anyone who wants to understand the strands of modern American conservative thought, this book is at once exciting, page-turning history and a valuable contribution to the historical process that it documents. Kimmage compellingly traces how Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, starting out in the same place in the 1920s, take political ideas in equally influential, widely divergent, directions. Ruth Wisse, Harvard University
Michael Kimmage has written a fascinating account of a most unlikely friendship between two brilliant Columbia University undergraduates in the 1920s, which devolved into a wary acquaintanceship in subsequent decades. Whittaker Chambers became the model for the central figure of the ex-Communist agent in Lionel Trilling's only novel, which eerily forecast the Alger Hiss case. Both were to become exemplars, in very different ways, of the conservative turn which overtook so many former radicals in the postwar world, interpreted here with sophistication and insight. Nathan Glazer
The reader...is very well served by this comprehensive account of the political and intellectual life of an era that cannot be forgotten, complete with the Alger Hiss trial that shattered the comfortable harmony the country had reached. The book is a prodigious effort, and one that should act as a guide for those too young to remember. Sol Schindler
[An] important debut book [by] Michael Kimmage--a young scholar who promises to become one of America's preeminent intellectual historians. Washington Times
What [Kimmage] depicts in this serious but highly accessible book is the tale of two men who were classmates and near contemporaries and, while pursuing radically different paths, reached similar philosophical conclusions that had an equally significant influence on U.S. political thought and domestic and foreign policy...Kimmage is jubilantly intelligent and convincing in his arguments...What Kimmage has done is record the ideological background to a much grander sociological, political and emotional awakening. He does it cleverly and objectively. Ronald Radosh - National Review
A compelling read that takes us back to the New Deal era...Kimmage is at his best when showing how both men's passions led them to and from communism. Michael Coren - National Post
What Kimmage has done is record the ideological background to a much grander sociological, political and emotional awakening. He does it cleverly and objectively. Ron Capshaw - New York Post
Alongside William F. Buckley Jr., Chambers can be seen as a forefather of the conservative movement that would ultimately produce the age of Reagan and Bush...Ultimately, Chambers was a propagandist and Trilling a professor. In the 1930s while Chambers was ferrying secret documents to Soviet agents in Washington, Trilling was writing a book on Matthew Arnold. Chambers reduced his vision of communism to a single, great conspiracy, while the whole purpose of Trilling's life was to emphasize ambivalence, complexity, and nuance. Kimmage recounts these distinctions with subtlety...Thoughtful, erudite, and engaging. Michael Coren - Edmonton Journal
Astonishing. It's a masterpiece in the field of intellectual history. Alex Goodall - Literary Review
Meticulous and illuminating...Kimmage is a perceptive and insightful guide through this territory, deftly weaving the ideas of his protagonists together with the story of their lives and the history of their country over nearly half a century. His book is an impressive work of scholarship...Michael Kimmage has done more than produce an important work of scholarship. He has contributed to our civic self-understanding. Adam Kirsch - nextbook.org
As Kimmage shows, neither man mapped cleanly left or right, though they both embraced anticommunism in response to Stalinism. The author argues that anticommunism turned both the Right and the Left toward the political center. While this is an intellectual history, Kimmage is careful to emphasize that these men were not merely armchair observers, but were personally embedded in the events of their time. Well written and accessible. Damon Linker - New Republic online
The Conservative Turn tells the story of postwar America's political evolution through two fascinating figures: Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers, who went on to intellectual prominence, sharing the questions, crises, and challenges of their generation. Kimmage argues that the divergent careers of these two men exemplify important developments in postwar American politics: the emergence of modern conservatism and the rise of moderate liberalism.
A New Republic "The Plank" Blog Best Book of 2009
About the Author
Michael Kimmage is Associate Professor of History, Catholic University of America.
Catholic University of America
Table of Contents
- Sons of the Bourgeoisie: Portrait of Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers as Young Men
- Red Years in the Red Decade: Pursuing Soviet Alternatives
- Kronstadt: The Break
- First Steps in an Anti-Stalinist World
- Toward an Anti-Communism of the Left and an Anti-Communism of the Right
- Fictional Anti-Communism: Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey
- Witness: The Trial of Whittaker Chambers
- Conservatism and the Anti-Communist Self
- The Establishment of an Anti-Communist Intelligentsia