1974 NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, 1974
ODYSSEY OF A LIBERAL
By Russell Kirk
Thorny and indomitable, Freda Utley now is 72 years old, full of reproaches and resentments, possessed of acerbic wit, passionately didactic and remarkably readable. Life has not gone well for her, what with ambitions blighted and talents run to waste; even this book is set in lamentably small type and blemished by misprints. Yet it ought to be read widely, for London-born Freda Utley has had some part in many of the grand and grim events of our time, and has known half the people worth knowing.
Her friends, or quondam friends (Miss Utley being as disputatious as she is candid, with considerable of a reputation for mischief-making in several circles) may not be utterly delighted by the publication of this volume. Consider her remarks on Bertrand Russell, a number of whose previously-unpublished letters are included here:
“I am one of the few, if not the only woman who enjoyed Russell’s friendship for many years who did not have an affair with him. Although he wanted to make love to me, as was his nature, and laughed at my “Puritan prejudices,” he understood me and helped me to understand myself. . . . Through the years I was occasionally to be appalled when Bertie’s terrific sexual urges, which were the accompaniment of his genius, caused him to assume the repulsive expression of a lustful satyr. My reverence for him as philosopher and humanitarian enabled me to dismiss these recollections from my mind. But buried in my subconscious they can still evoke an all too vivid vision of his hungry lips and avid eyes momentarily blotting out the image of philosopher and friend which mattered most.”
This is not political partisanship, despite Miss Utley’s revulsion against the left; for Norman Thomas and Sidney Hook are among the few associates whose character is unblemished in Freda Utley’s eyes; and in another fashion she is as hard upon that amiable conservative the late William Henry Chamberlin:
“Chamberlin did a great deal by his books and articles to ‘debamboozle’ the Western world befuddled by the illusions spread by the ‘totalitarian liberals’ about Soviet Russia. But he had no inclination to be a hero, crusader or martyr, and made an impression of being cold hearted or callous. Sasha [the author’s stepson] used to do a good imitation or caricature of William Henry, literally twiddling his thumbs and giggling – as the Japanese do when very upset – while recalling some dreadful experience of Soviet callousness, cruelty and deception. Determined to see life as the comedy Voltaire said it is to those who think rather than feel, William Henry was a man of integrity and courage after his fashion and was loyal to his friends.”
These are men she esteems; on the many time-servers and turncoats she has known – people whose duplicity has raised them to high places – she is harsher. Successively socialistic liberal Communist, anti-Communist, ally of American conservatives, and mordant critic of many of those conservatives, Miss Utley has been all her career a keen polemicist, a gadfly (or perhaps a wasp), and a woman of principle. There is much ego in her cosmos; yet repeatedly she sacrificed her prospects, and endured poverty, rather than connive at a lie or submit to an error. Censorious as Diogenes, still she is no cynic, and retains something of the English liberal creed in which she was reared. As she puts it in her prefatory note:
“The belief that we can ourselves create a better world makes life purposeful and worth living – however dim the hope becomes as we grow old. Thus, I suppose I am still a liberal within the original meaning of that much-abused word, although having learned through experience more than is dreamed of in the philosophy of most Western liberals, I no longer share their faith in the inevitability of progress and the perfectibility of man through the creation of a better material environment.”
Indeed, she has known our time and its afflictions as have few other people. Her sketches of Bloomsbury in the twenties, of Russian existence under Stalin (when her Russian Jewish husband vanished forever into the prison-camps), of China devastated by war and ideology, of Greenwich Village in the forties, and of Washington intrigue more recently (this last to be enlarged in a promised second volume of memoirs) are the work of an involved observer pitilessly realistic and penetrating.
George Bernard Shaw, “half genius and half charlatan” (some of whose letters are printed here to his discredit), Dwight Macdonald, Chester Bowles, Pearl Buck, Virginia Wolf, Wendell Willkie, Chiang Kai-shek, Max Eastman, Aldous Huxley, the Webbs, Agnes Smedley, Sir George Sansom, Isabel Patterson, and Malcolm Muggeridge are subjected to Miss Utley’s scrutiny; so are J.P. Marquand, Edgar Snow, C.E.M. Joad, Joseph McCarthy, Harold Laski, Norman Cousins, Owen Lattimore, Huntington Cairns, Mary McCarthy, and a hundred more people of mark. With her London University degrees, Miss Utley would have liked a professorial chair, but chance or providence sent her elbowing among political movers and literary shakers. Though she may repine at this, her readers will not.
A good hater, a lover of justice, Freda Utley may endure through her memoirs when her tracts for the times are forgotten altogether. There occurs a sardonic virulence that is virtuous, and there echoes a strident lamentation that is brave.