The second volume of Isaiah Berlin's revelatory letters, spanning 1946–1960
‘People are my landscape’, Isaiah Berlin liked to say, and nowhere is the truth of this observation more evident than in his letters. He is a fascinated watcher of human beings in all their variety, and revels in describing them to his many correspondents. His letters combine ironic social comedy and a passionate concern for individual freedom. His interpretation of political events, historical and contemporary, and his views on how life should be lived, are always grounded in the personal, and his fiercest condemnation is reserved for purveyors of grand abstract theories that ignore what people are really like.
This second volume of Berlin’s letters takes up the story when, after war service in the United States, he returns to life as an Oxford don. Against the background of post-war austerity, the letters chart years of academic frustration and self-doubt, the intellectual explosion when he moves from philosophy to the history of ideas, his growing national fame as broadcaster and lecturer, the publication of some of his best-known works, his election to a professorship, and his reaction to knighthood.
Berlin’s visits to American universities, where he sees McCarthyism at work, and his journeys eastward – to Europe, Palestine (and later Israel) and the Soviet Union – inspire acute and often very funny pen-pictures. His political contacts yield an inside view of major world events – the creation of Israel, the Suez Crisis, the Cold War. Many letters provide illuminating, accessible commentary on his ideas. These are the years, too, of momentous developments in his private life: the bachelor don’s loss of sexual innocence, the emotional turmoil of his father’s death, his courtship of a married woman and transformation into husband and stepfather. Above all, these revealing letters vividly display Berlin’s effervescent personality – often infuriating, but always irresistible.
“As well as being sometimes profoundly wise, these letters are often laugh-out-loud funny.”
Brian Lunch, Irish Times
“The letters are often mischievous, sometimes ironic, almost always witty, and occasionally profound.”
Justin Cartwright, New Statesman
“They delight in flashing the stiletto, these donnish types, and impossible to conceive would be a college in which no academic grown had a dagger sticking out of the back. It is precisely this kind of malice which constitutes a naughty proportion of the book's appeal”
“Readers of Berlin's letters will find the same bubbling flow of malice, wit and human insight on the written page”