Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr
edited by Ursula M. Niebuhr
HarperCollins, 432 pages, $29.95
In a perverse way, we have Richard W. Fox to thank for this most interesting volume of letters of the late Reinhold Niebuhr and illustrious correspondents. Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985) portrays its subject as a Midwestern boy come to the big eastern city in search of the Main Chance, in his case through religious influence. This so irritated some of Niebuhr’s friends (see, for example, Langdon Gilkey’s review in The Journal of Religion, April 1988) that Niebuhr’s wife thought a response was required to show Reinhold Niebuhr to be a decent, caring, and genuinely Christian man.
In that task, the book succeeds. Niebuhr emerges as a devoted husband, an affectionate (if distracted) father and friend, and as consistently and pervasively Christian. The book consists mostly of ordinary, comfortable travel letters from Niebuhr to his wife, from their engagement in 1931 until a stroke ended most of his relentless speaking trips in 1952. The picture is filled in considerably by several memoirs of specific events by Ursula Niebuhr, as well as more diffuse domestic reminiscences in the form of “letters to a dear but departed spouse.” The last third of the book consists of correspondence with Felix Frankfurter, Lewis Mumford, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., British politician John Strachey, former student (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cousin) Hans Christoph von Hase, and, most delightfully, W. H. Auden.
There are a few additional things, though, that students and fans of Reinhold Niebuhr could wish for from this volume. Few of the exchanges are complete, which is especially unfortunate in the Auden section, though it is usually possible to follow the flow of ideas. There is also nothing from Reinhold Niebuhr’s first forty years, before he met his wife, the years in which his thought went through its most profound transformation. In fact, none of the relationships he established before 1930 appears directly in the text, including any exchanges with one of his closest and most enduring friends, William Scarlett, Episcopal Bishop of Missouri.
Most surprising, though, is the absence of any correspondence with—or even many references to—any member of Reinhold Niebuhr’s family. There is not a trace, for example, of the weekly letters from his mother, which continued into the 1960s. Missing, too, are any reminders of Reinhold Niebuhr’s clear display of his Christian character in helping his brother Walter, or communications from his sister, McCormick Theological Seminary professor Hulda Niebuhr, who shared in the family’s theological dialogue.
The most puzzling omissions are the letters from Reinhold’s younger brother, eminent Yale Divinity School professor H. Richard Niebuhr. One of the objections to Richard Fox’s account is his suggestion that Reinhold Niebuhr owed the critical breakthrough in his thinking to his brother’s ideas, a claim Fox supports with excerpts from H. Richard Niebuhr’s letters to his older brother. Since all the crucial letters are still held by Ursula Niebuhr and not yet available even in the Library of Congress, it is most perplexing, given the controversy on this point, that these letters were not included in this book. Perhaps we may look forward to their appearance in another volume of Niebuhr letters.
William J. Weston is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.