Harvard Affiliates’ Books Draw Press Attention
Adam Kirsch, Mark Whitaker, and Niall Ferguson have new books out.
Reviewers in the New York Times and Boston Globe have taken note of three books with Harvard ties.
In Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press), poet, author, and New Republic senior editor Adam Kirsch ’97, a contributing editor of this magazine, reconsiders the late Lionel Trilling, Litt.D. ’62, who traced the contemporary cultural, social, and political implications of literature. Kirsch explores Trilling’s journey from the “Ivy-educated bourgeois in the 1920s to Communist-leaning radical in the early 1930s to, finally, éminence grise of literary and liberal anti-Communism, which he continued to be until his death in 1975,” writes Michael Kimmage, Ph.D. ’04, in the Times Book Review. Trilling’s work has previously been portrayed as outdated—most notably in “Regrets Only,” a 2008 New Yorker essay by Bass professor of English Louis Menand; Kirsch argues, adds Kimmage, that the literary critic’s work is far from obsolete, and is “essential to understanding our current crisis of literary confidence—and to overcoming it.” Kimmage, who has written about Trilling in his own book, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, concludes that “Why Trilling Matters is not simply the best book yet written on Lionel Trilling. Its subject, an austere man previously tethered to the age of Eisenhower and Kennedy, is the pretext for an invigorating magic trick. With Trilling’s help, Kirsch transforms a backward glance into a forward step.” (Look for Kirsch’s assessment of the new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, published by Harvard University Press, in the January-February 2012 Harvard Magazine.)
In My Long Trip Home (Simon & Schuster), award-winning journalist Mark Whitaker ’79 searches for the factual and emotional truth about his complex and troubled interracial family, recounting how he overcame a turbulent childhood to achieve success, according to another New York Times book review, by Janet Maslin. Based on extensive interviews and research, Whitaker traces the relationship of his parents—his father, an African-American scholar, carried on a secret affair with his mother, a shy World War II refugee from France, during the racially divided 1950s, before they married and later went through a bitter divorce. The review notes: “Mr. Whitaker, who has had a long career in journalism (most notably as Newsweek’s top editor) is well justified in thinking that his family’s unusual history warrants book-length treatment. My Long Trip Home is full of remarkable stories and not just because of its racial aspects.”
In Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin), Tisch professor of history Niall Ferguson (profiled in this Harvard Magazine feature) responds to the question: How did a collection of relatively poor, perpetually warring, and scientifically backward nations in the west of Europe come to dominate the rest of the world? According to David Shribman’s review in the Boston Globe, “All the values fueling the rise of the new powers—the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, all those people we didn’t worry about but who are now devouring our lunch—are our values. Those other guys believe in competition, just as we do, and in science, and, increasingly, in the rule of law. Medicine, too. They’ve created consumer societies and are slaves to the work ethic just like us, or, probably, more. There’s no clash of civilizations after all. Those attributes are what Ferguson calls the West’s ‘killer apps,’ and what’s happened is that the rest of the world ‘finally began to download them.’”