Lamentably still on my to-be-read-over-the-summer list, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’ magisterial biography of American diplomat George Kennan was yesterday named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. Called “an engaging portrait of a globetrotting diplomat whose complicated life was interwoven with the Cold War and America’s emergence as the world’s dominant power” by the Pulitzer jurors, George F. Kennan: An American Life had last month won the same category at the National Book Critics Circle Awards.
(Intriguingly, given that Kennan is best known for a critical analysis of the Soviet Union that undergirded the American doctrine of containing Communism, one of the other finalists in the Pulitzer biography category was Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. The third finalist was the late Manning Marable’s innovative biography of Malcolm X, which was moved to the History category and won its own Pulitzer.)
John began the book thirty years ago, the same year he published Strategies of Containment, an analysis of Kennan’s doctrine as it had evolved over the course of the Cold War. Back in 1982, Kennan was a spry 78-year old who himself had published yet another book, The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age. Who knew that he would live another 23 years?!? In which time Kennan published three more books (two memoirs and a study of the Franco-Russian alliance leading up to World War I) and his patient biographer wrote the leading works of “post-revisionist” Cold War history, including The Long Peace (published 1987), We Now Know (1997), and a revised edition of Strategies of Containment (2005), and was awarded the National Humanities Medal (in 2005).
In the meantime, he also left Ohio University for Yale University in time to help guide the progress of a young diplomatic historian from Minnesota who chose the unlikely dissertation topic of Allied education policy in occupied western Germany after World War II (a topic, I have to say, that was inspired directly by John’s assigning Norman Naimark’s book on the Soviet zone of occupation in his Cold War graduate seminar). I’m not quite sure what John would make of my present course of research (I keep waiting for Yale’s International Security Studies program to demand their fellowship money back…), but I certainly credit him with helping push me to become a more nimble scholar.
(I wrote a post this afternoon at our department blog about the potential pitfalls of graduate training, particularly for Christian historians. None of those problems showed up in my experience with John, who exemplifies what’s best about history as a “profession.”)
John also disabused of me of any notion that a world-class scholar couldn’t also be a gifted and dedicated teacher, or that academic writing couldn’t also be good writing. My own Cold War history course is at least 80% a retread of John’s undergraduate survey of the topic at Yale, a class so popular that (when I was there) it was limited to 3rd and 4th year students and yet still filled an auditorium. The experience of teaching that course inspired John to write a highly accessible synthesis, The Cold War: A New History, that I’ve assigned as a text ever since it came out, about five years ago. I’ve since seen it pop up on my own students’ Facebook pages as one of their favorite books.
I’ve also used his The Landscape of History as a text for our capstone seminar. (I like to think that the collected royalties from Bethel students helps John keep his fridge stocked with the imported beer he kindly shares with graduate students at evening seminars.) One of Landscape’s best chapters (“Molecules with Minds of Their Own”) makes the case for individual agency (against historical determinism) and, therefore, for reviving the traditional connections between history and biography. Indeed, John has also offered a popular course on biography at Yale, so it’s absolutely no surprise to find him writing a stellar example of the genre on a complex man whose ideas and actions no doubt altered the trajectory of history.