I have been about this business of writing and publishing for quite some time now. My very first publication occurred almost 70 years ago. I was a young sophomore at Harvard during what is now referred to as the McCarthy era. I was living in a cavernous single in an overflow dormitory called Claverly (in those days at the end of your freshman year you had to interview to get into one of the Harvard houses and because I refused on principle to do so I was stuck in Claverly.) The president of Harvard was a distinguished scientist named James Bryant Conant, who later went on to be the first High Commissioner of the American zone of Germany. Conant had stated publicly that although he would not fire a member of the Harvard faculty who was found to belong to the Communist Party, he would not hire a communist either. Having just read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty I drew myself up to my full 17 years of height and wrote a letter to the Harvard Crimson protesting Conant’s statement and calling on him to “step down from his high position” if he was unwilling to defend the principles of academic freedom. Conant did in fact step down at the end of the next academic year, though I seriously doubt that his decision was influenced by my letter.
My second publication came a year and a half later and again it was a letter, this time to my favorite pulp science fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. (In those days the two leading pulp science fiction magazines were Astounding and Galaxy. I was a fan of the first.) Some science fiction writers had embraced something called non-Aristotelian logic and in fact one of the greatest of the science fiction writers, A. E. Van Vogt, had written a novel, first serialized in Astounding, called The World of Null-A. At that time I was still a logic student at Harvard and I was offended by what I considered an elementary misunderstanding of Aristotle so once again I drew myself up and wrote a letter to protest, which they published.
Thus launched on my writing career, I never looked back, and I have been at it ever since. When I was young, I very much wanted my voice to be heard and I wrote constantly, obsessively, publishing books and articles with abandon. As I grew older, my work became more interior. What was important to me was not being heard but rather making clear and coherent what was in my mind so that I could put my thoughts on paper, whether to be published or simply to be put back finished in my file drawers. Now that I am old, more and more I find myself looking back at this long 70 year period of thinking and writing.
When I started this blog I was a young man of 75, full of energy and badly in need of a medium in which I could articulate the thoughts that had been in my mind for so many decades. Now, 12 years later, it gives me pleasure to run my mind over the millions of words I have assembled into sentences and to identify those bits of writing of which I am particularly fond.
Leaving to one side my most serious work – the two books and many articles on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the two books and many more articles on the thought of Karl Marx – there are three little pieces of writing that stand out as my favorites. Only one of them was actually published; the second was written for publication but was rejected in horror by the editors of the Journal where it was intended to appear, and the third was a speech that it never occurred to me to try to publish (although a version of it actually was published as part of an article co-authored by myself and my brilliant son Tobias Barrington Wolff – for that reason undoubtedly my all time favorite publication.)
I actually reproduced all three of these little pieces in this blog seven years ago but because I am so fond of them I am going to do it all over again in the next several days. I make no apology for this. If I were capable of composing a violin concerto or string quartet, it would never occurred to me to arrange for it to be played only once and then be put away.
The three pieces to which I am referring are a review of a book by Allan Bloom, a report of a conference on Kantian legal theory, and a talk given at the annual colloquium organized by the philosophy department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All three of these pieces have in common the fact that they are written ironically, they are not what at first appearance they seem to be. This is no accident, as I shall try to explain when I am finished posting them one after the other on this blog.
While I am preparing to do this, the House of Representatives is going through the last tedious steps before approving and sending to the president for his signature the extraordinary $1.9 trillion Recovery Act that Biden has put forward and successfully seen to its realization. This is an accomplishment of such magnitude that it will require some commentary after I have finished my stroll down memory lane.