Cover: The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, from Harvard University PressCover: The Conservative Turn in HARDCOVER

Harvard Historical Studies 165

The Conservative Turn

Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism

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Product Details


$63.00 • £50.95 • €56.50

ISBN 9780674032583

Publication Date: 03/31/2009


440 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Harvard Historical Studies


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.—Joseph Shattan, The American Spectator

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.—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.—Damon Linker, The New Republic online

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, The Washington Times

Astonishing. It’s a masterpiece in the field of intellectual history.—Jeffrey Hart, American Conservative

What Kimmage has done is record the ideological background to a much grander sociological, political and emotional awakening. He does it cleverly and objectively.—Michael Coren, Edmonton Journal

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.—Michael Coren, National Post

[An] important debut book [by] Michael Kimmage—a young scholar who promises to become one of America’s preeminent intellectual historians.—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.—Ron Capshaw, The New York Post

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.—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.—M. L. Brunner, Choice

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

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

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