The U.S. has never had as robust a tradition of cultivating them as, say, England or France. The protean Simon Schama and Christopher Hitchens, each of whom spent years in the U.S., were both born and educated in the U.K. There is even a book of essays on the subject, "Public Intellectuals: An Endangered Species?" But at the moment, there are also excellent biographies available on two of the genus: one American, one English. The U.S. subject is George F. Kennan, who appears in John Lewis Gaddis' remarkable book, "George F. Kennan: An American Life" from The Penguin Press.
Gaddis, a Cold War historian, has made a highly complex man -- a diplomat and excellent writer who articulated the American policy of containment during the Cold War in his celebrated Long Telegram of 1946 and his "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 -- come to life. Henry Kissinger summed up his influence by saying, "George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history."
Kennan, who trained as a Russian specialist and was a foreign service officer in the Soviet Union early in his career, was attached to the American Embassy in Berlin when the U.S. entered World War II. As the second in command there, he had to handle the travel and accommodation arrangements for the American Embassy staff and journalists who were held under house arrest for months in the spa town of Bad Nauheim. As he wrote later, "perhaps those of us who served in Moscow were not quick enough to understand the whole Nazi phenomenon, because we couldn't imagine that there could be any regime as nasty as the one with which we were confronted."
When later presented with what might have been thought to be his goal, an ambassadorship to the Soviet Union, Kennan swiftly got into trouble. A comment he made to The New York Times, which he believed was off the record, was published, saying that his isolation as ambassador was worse than what he had experienced while under house arrest in Germany. The Soviet government demanded his immediate recall. As for his private life, Kennan loved working on his small farm in Pennsylvania, and he regarded the physical labor he did there as a necessary corrective to dealing with diplomatic bureaucracy, something he never found easy to do. His secret life? Kennan, a handsome and courtly man, had a way with the ladies, which he sometimes exercised during his long, successful marriage to the former Annelise Sorensen. Gaddis was working on this biography for a seemingly endless amount of time, since he began it when Kennan was in his late 70s, and the Cold War theoretician lived to be 101. Characteristically, Kennan apologized to the writer for the delay. But every year seemed to simply burnish the diplomat's reputation further, and he was one of those fortunate people who not only live to a great age but do so with all their mental capabilities intact.
The other tome is "An Honorable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper" (Random House) by Adam Sisman. The wonderfully lively biography is a perfect match for its brilliant, acerbic subject. Trevor-Roper, the author of "The Last Days of Hitler" and "The Hermit of Peking" was the Regis Professor of Modern History at Oxford, then the master of Peterhouse at Cambridge, and famed for writing about a polymathic range of subjects. He was also notably willing to get into intellectual dustups with dons and others. His detractors said he had never written an important book about his special subject, early modern English history. Even his stepson -- also an academic -- gave him a hard time about this. But Trevor-Roper preferred to devote himself to journalism and to his favorite literary form, the essay. Sisman makes a good case for the idea that it didn't really matter whether the don wrote a "big book" or not, since he often created intellectual controversies which resulted in long books written by others.
Probably the biggest contretemps of Trevor-Roper's life came in the early Eighties, when he was sent by The Times of London to evaluate a group of diaries purportedly by Adolf Hitler that the German magazine Stern was planning to publish. Under pressure to make a decision quickly, he concluded that they were authentic, then changed his mind.
Unfortunately, his volte-face was ignored by the Times' owner, Rupert Murdoch, who had the paper trumpet the existence of the diaries and run their own excerpts. A few days later, the results of tests Stern had run came back; the paper the journals were written on was modern. Trevor-Roper wrote an apologetic letter, which appeared in the Times, taking responsibility for the mistake. Although Sisman maintains that no one under 40 remembers the controversy, it damaged the historian's reputation at the end of his life.
There's also a new biography of a very different kind of public figure, Peter Longerich's "Heinrich Himmler," (Oxford University Press), translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. It's the first full-length biography of Himmler, who, as head of the SS under Adolf Hitler, was the architect of the Final Solution. As he put it in his Posen speech in 1943, it was necessary to be "honest, decent, loyal, and comradely...to those of our own blood and to no one else. How the Russians or the Czechs fare is a matter of indifference to me....Whether or not 10,000 Russian women collapse with exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch concerns me only insofar as the anti-tank ditch is being dug for Germany." This fascinating, horrifying and comprehensive book (1,000 pages with footnotes and index) contains a wide range of information. Among its revelations: Himmler was extremely involved in the details of the lives of his men, even handling personally many incidents involving drunkenness or bad debts and frequently involving himself in decisions about whom SS men could marry -- they had to apply for permission -- with many minute calculations about whether the proposed bride was "ethnically sound" or not. One of Himmler's major concerns: Mass executions had a bad effect on the morale of his men; thus, a better way to kill the targeted populations had to be found. One of the many pretexts for murdering Jews was that they were all partisans.
Then there's "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest" (Alfred A. Knopf) by Wade Davis, which tells the more-than-twice-told tale of the great mountaineer George Leigh Mallory and his colleague Sandy Irvine, who disappeared on the mountain in 1924. Mallory's perfectly preserved body was found by a mountaineering party in 1999; Irvine's ice axe has been found, but not his corpse. As the subtitle of the book suggests, the thesis is that the losses in World War I had a great influence on attitudes toward climbing Everest. The carnage was so universal and the war itself was so nonsensical that it created a whole group of young men who wore their lives -- rather than their learning -- lightly like a flower. The thought was that conquering the mountain would be a beautiful achievement that could mitigate the waste that characterized the conflict. (In a curious twist, the father of Hugh Trevor-Roper's wife, Xandra, was General Douglas Haig, whom a number of writers about the war blame for the nightmare of the Somme.) Wade has done an enormous amount of research about what every member of the Twenties Everest expeditions had been through during the war. It isn't a pretty picture.
The depiction of Tibet of that time is also very detailed and particularly interesting. The lamas had to repeatedly warn the British mountaineers not to kill the local animals, which were, it seems, as fearless as those on the Galapagos, since they had no natural predators.
"Into the Garden with Charles: A Memoir" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger is a memoir about finding romance relatively late in life with a terrific gardening partner. Wachsberger was a set designer and trompe l'oeil painter who bought a dilapidated 300-year-old house in Orient, N.Y. and began restoring it, planting his dream garden there, which was wild, varied and featured many exotic plants. Then he met Charles Dean, who was a maitre d' at New York's Carlyle and was also keen on gardening, but who didn't have a plot of his own. Over time, the result of their collaboration was a beautiful showplace; Wachsberger, who died last year at 66, also began doing remarkable paintings which, from a distance, had the look of photographs.
There's a photo connection with "To Pieces (on the developing of Velox paper)" by Henry Parland, (Norvik Press), translated by Dinah Cannell. The book is the sole novel written by Parland, the son of English and Baltic German parents who were living in Russia, then moved to Helsinki. Parland was meant to be studying law at the University of Helsinki, but he neglected his studies to lead the life of a flaneur, so his parents sent him to stay with relatives in Lithuania, where his uncle was a professor. There, he became intrigued by the Russian Formalists, who influenced "To Pieces," as did the work of Marcel Proust. Its poetic narrative, which concerns the narrator's faithless lover Ami, now dead, is set in Jazz Age Helsinki and compares mental processes to the development of a photograph. He wrote, "When you are bent over a developing bath...feature after feature shoots forth, each one complementing -- giving new weight and meaning to -- the next, finally coalescing as a picture which, wide-eyed, takes in the room like a newborn child."
Parland's novel, which has been hailed as a groundbreaking modernist work, was published after he died of scarlet fever at 22 in 1930.