Cover image for Letters, 1928-1946
Letters, 1928-1946
Berlin, Isaiah, 1909-1997.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Correspondence. Selections
Publication Information:
Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xlviii, 755 pages; 24 cm
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
B1618.B45 A4 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Isaiah Berlin is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century, the most famous English thinker of the post-war era, and the focus of growing interest and discussion. Above all, he is one of the best modern exponents of the disappearing art of letter-writing. 'Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends,' wrote Berlin to a correspondent. This first volume inaugurates a long awaited edition of his letters that might well adopt this remark as an epigraph. Berlin's life was well worth living, both for himself and for the world. Fortunately he said a great deal to his friends on paper as well as in person. Berlin's letters reveal the significant growth and development of his personality and career over the two decades covered within them. Starting with his days as an eighteen year old student at St. Paul's School in London, they cover his years at Oxford as scholar and professor and the authorship of his famous biography of Karl Marx. The letters progress to his World War II stay in the U.S. and finally, his trip to the Soviet Union in 1945-6 and return to Oxford in 1946. "Emotional exploitation, cannibalism, which I think I dislike more than anything else in the world." To Ben Nicolson, September 1937 "Valery delivered an agreeable but dull lecture here. He said words were like thin planks over precipices, and if you crossed rapidly nothing happened, but if you stopped on any of them and stared into the gulf you would get vertigo and that was what philosophers were doing." To Cressida Bonham Carter, March 1939 "I never don't moralize." To Mary Fisher, 18 April 1940 "I only feel happy when I feel the solidarity of the majority of people I respect with and behind me." To Marion Frankfurter, 23 August 1940 "Certainly no politics are more real than those of academic life, no loves deeper, no hatreds more burning, no principles more sacred." To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944 "Nobody is so fiercely bureaucratic, or so stern with soldiers and regular civil servants, as the don disguised as temporary government official armed with an indestructible superiority complex." To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944 "My view on this is that you will not find life in the country lively enough for persons of your temperament. Life in the country in England depends entirely on (a) motor cars (b) rural tastes. As you possess neither, it is my considered view that apart from a weekend cottage or something of that sort, life in the country would bore you stiff within a very short time." To his parents, 31 January 1944 "This country is undoubtedly the largest assembly of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together, but the thought of staying here remains a nightmare." To his parents, 31 January 1944 "I am a hopeless dilettante about matters of fact really and only good for a column of gossip, if that." To W. J. Turner, 12 June 1945 "England is an old chronic complaint: every day in the afternoon in the left knee and the left leg below the kneecap, tiresome, annoying, not bad enough to go to bed with, probably incurable and madly irritating but not necessarily unlikely to lead to a really serious crisis unless complications set in." To Angus Malcolm, 20 February 1946

Author Notes

Philosopher, political theorist, and essayist, Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 to Russian-speaking Jewish parents in Latvia. Reared in Latvia and later in Russia, Berlin developed a strong Russian-Jewish identity, having witnessed both the Social-Democratic and the Bolshevik Revolutions.

At the age of 12, Berlin moved with his family to England, where he attended prep school and then St. Paul's. In 1928, he went up as a scholar to Corpus Christi College in Oxford. After an unsuccessful attempt at the Manchester Guardian, Berlin was offered a position as lecturer in philosophy at New College. Almost immediately, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls. During this time at All Souls, Berlin wrote his brilliant biographical study of Marx, titled Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939), for the Home University Library.

Berlin continued to teach through early World War II, and was then sent to New York by the Ministry of Information, and subsequently to the Foreign Office in Washington, D.C. It was during these years that he drafted several fine works regarding the changing political mood of the United States, collected in Washington Despatches 1941-1945 (1981). By the end of the war, Berlin had shifted his focus from philosophy to the history of ideas, and in 1950 he returned to All Souls. In 1957, he was elected to the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory, delivering his influential and best-known inaugural lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty.

Some of his works include Liberty, The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928 - 1946, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, and Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus.

Berlin died in Oxford on November 5, 1997.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

This first selected volume of the celebrated philosopher's prodigious correspondence reveals an intimately charming "Shaya" (as he familiarly signed himself) to match the erudite Oxford don and brilliant conversationalist. The two decades covered here take the Baltic-born Berlin (1909-1997) from his adopted homeland of England, where he wholeheartedly assimilated himself in the scholarly world, to diplomatic postings in wartime Washington, D.C., and Soviet Russia on the eve of the Cold War; he also reports from holidays and tours in Austria, Italy and Palestine during the mounting tensions in the 1930s. Throughout, the facets of Berlin's character scintillate, whether indulging in Bridesheadesque banter with fellow philosophers J.L. Austin and A.J. Ayer; critiquing Tolstoy and Henry James with Stephen Spender and Elizabeth Bowen; debating Zionism with Jewish grandees Felix Frankfurter and Victor Rothschild; or reassuring his parents about his health. Despite the sheer number of letters, there are gaps in the biographic record, including, disappointingly, his watershed stay in Leningrad in 1945-1946. With Berlin's sizable social circles, penchant for name-dropping and ubiquitous scholarly allusions, Hardy's numerous footnotes are indispensable (and sometimes wryly amusing). Likewise, his choice of supplementary material, from interviews to Berlin's early school essay on freedom, enriches a collection already overflowing with Berlin's favorite subjects: intellectual insights and indiscreet gossip. 75 photos, and maps not seen by PW. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Meticulously edited and ably annotated by the indefatigable Hardy (Wolfson College, Oxford), this first installment of a (provisionally) projected three-volume set of correspondence provides an indispensable window into the soul and mind of one of the 20th century's most notable intellectual figures. By way of Oxford, Palestine, and Washington, DC, with many peripatetic excursions in between, the Isaiah Berlin material adroitly collected here takes readers from the fledgling 18-year-old's request to G. K. Chesterton in 1918 soliciting material for a new literary publication at St. Paul's School (London) to a watershed trip to the Soviet Union in 1945-46 that opened Berlin's questioning eyes to the excesses of totalitarian rule. In his wisdom, the editor also provides several helpful supplementary resources designed to orient readers to the life and times of a towering modern thinker whose sparkling brilliance and epistolary prowess cohabited unceremoniously with a nearly insatiable love of gossip. Renowned for his explorations of liberalism, pluralism, 19th-century Russian thought, and the Romantic movement, Isaiah Berlin remains one of the world's most eloquent, passionate, and incisive advocates of freedom and human decency. For all of these reasons, every academic library should hold his letters. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers. H. I. Einsohn Middlesex Community College