Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Many excellent books were published in 2014, but I did not read any of them. (My friend Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic excepted.) Here are the three best books I did read this year, each of which speaks to our current moment despite being technically well out of date.

Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, Nikolai Gogol, trans. Jesse Zeldin (1847/1969). 

Russian writers, like Russian holy men, have always been permitted a wide latitude of eccentricity by their admirers, but with the publication of Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, even Nikolai Gogol’s friends became convinced that he had truly lost his mind. Here was the satirist who had punctured the pretensions of the mighty and uplifted the downtrodden, and what did he publish as his follow-up to The Inspector-General and Dead Souls? A pious exaltation of the imperial social system, serfdom included.

The reviews were blistering, none more than Vissarion Belinsky’s: “His name should be Tartuffe Vasilievich, not Nikolai Vasilievich. . . . Preacher of the knout, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism, panegyrist of barbarism, what are you doing? . . . May your Byzantine God forgive you.” Distributing Belinsky’s seditious review was among the crimes for which Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849.

There is no denying that Selected Passages is a frantic book. Gogol seems tortured by the thought that his earlier work might have wounded his country. It is not exactly endearing that his “correspondence” therefore consists mostly of sententious letters of spiritual advice and borderline-pompous exhortations to humility, but his very real agony earns him some pardon. The book is beautiful in parts, at least, and sincere throughout.

Any culture that bestows fame on fiery young radicals will see some of them punished with remorse in old age, but there are surprisingly few role models for writers who find themselves in this situation. Coleridge and Wordsworth, for example, did not handle their guilt-racked maturities well. Gogol was certainly no role model for penitent authors, but he is also something more than a cautionary tale. This would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone you happen to know who writes for Gawker.

The House of the Prophet, Louis Auchincloss (1980). 

A definitive biography of Walter Lippmann has not yet been written, perhaps because the man himself was so elusive. His principles seemed to change from book to book. The blandness of his prose lent even the most straightforward statements an ambiguous feel (“the defense of liberty requires positive and affirmative convictions and principles”), and the closer Lippmann drew to anti-democratic and illiberal expert-worship, the more suspicious this ambiguity seemed. What in a younger man might have been a laudable flexibility grew to look, over a forty-year career, like an absence of core.

The novelist Louis Auchincloss detected this strange vacuum at the heart of Lippmann’s professional persona, and by delving into Lippmann’s personal life, he uncovered an even deeper abyss. To steal the wife of his best friend, a man with whom he has lunch twice a week and talks on the phone daily, would be a blot on any man’s character. Lippmann did it by letter—one to his friend, one to his wife. (The note to his wife began: “I do not know whether this will seem to you an indirect way of dealing with the affair . . .”) Auchincloss makes this cold-blooded betrayal the central episode of his roman a clef, and it brings his main character’s political permutations into focus. The historian Kenneth Lynn said, rightly, “The House of the Prophet gives us more insight into Lippmann in 275 pages than Walter Lippmann and the American Century does in 600.” This book would make a consoling gift for any refugees from The New Republic on your Christmas list.

The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, Martin S. Pernick (1999). 

Other books offer a better factual survey of the history of eugenics in America—Ian Dowbiggin’s trilogy on sterilization, euthanasia, and mental hygiene, for example—but for a vivid, breathing portrait of eugenicists in their heyday, there is no better book than The Black Stork. The title comes from a propaganda film of 1917 made by, and starring, Dr. Harry Haiselden of Chicago, who gained national notoriety when he withheld life-saving treatment from a deformed newborn on eugenic grounds. The film depicts a heroic doctor in a similar situation, with a flash-forward sequence of the baby’s likely future (hunchbacked insanity, crime, death) vindicating the parents’ climactic decision to heed Dr. Haiselden’s counsel.

By telling the story of a single film, Pernick takes in a panorama: the Catholic laywoman who attempted to save Haiselden’s real-life infant patient by kidnapping it from the hospital; the Harvard physician who condemned Haiselden in print but privately arranged for his diabetic brother to be euthanized; the socialist editor who used the Haiselden case as an occasion to condemn the Catholic Church for being “eager to have millions of idiots and imbeciles born, so long as it can only get them baptized.” Even Haiselden becomes something more than a monster in Pernick’s telling—he did, after all, adopt two children, including a foundling. Yet this was also the man who argued that mentally fit babies should be allowed to die if physically crippled because “the greater its mentality, the greater would be its own humiliation over its deformity.” In an age when the eugenic impulse is so often concealed by reticence—as in discussions about pre-natal testing—it is enlightening to look back to a time when progressives considered it something to boast about.

Helen Andrews has written for the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and Books and Culture, among other publications.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

More on: Books, Culture

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles