The Message of the Insider

A Life in Our Times: Memoirs

by John Kenneth Galbraith
Houghton Mifflin, 563 pp., $16.95

One of the multiple pleasures of the works of Ambassador Galbraith is the power of their example to infect the reader with the fascinations of the self. To be caught in his sensual music is to find one’s mind chasing after one’s own achievements, which in my own case as in Charlus’s consist of little that is free from embarrassment except for our having both read all but one of the 144 novels of Honoré de Balzac. And oddly enough this almost solitary attainment brought me closer to a quarrel with Galbraith than we had ever come in the course of a skimpy but, on my side, much appreciated social relationship.

He had written that the sorrows of President Kennedy’s funeral had been unrelieved except for the moment when General de Gaulle had complimented him on their shared loftiness of physique. “We must,” the General had said, “be merciless to small men.”

When next we met, I wondered whether Galbraith had read The Deputy of Arles and taken proper note of Balzac’s notion that tall men suffer from those debilities of flesh and character he grouped into the mysterious but contemptible category of the lymphatic. To my surprise, the normal suavity and good nature of Galbraith’s countenance darkened alarmingly and I recognized that what had been only a bit of teasing, however clumsier than his own engagements with that perilous art, had been the cause of marked offense.

Might not the fabled assurance be a hard-bought commodity after all, and might not the height from which he looks down upon the rest of us shelter an adolescent still wounded by the taunts his weediness had brought him from his schoolmates? But it would have been like him to turn an oddity into a vanity and to be abraded by any hint that someone beside himself might think it an oddity. He has arrived at the tone of a great man; but the qualities of his greatness may well be the particular secrets the tone works so carefully to obscure.

He retains, as an instance, an ability to make enemies most surprising in someone so affable. His memoirs make the life sound like a smooth ascent to sunny uplands; and yet there are continual intimations of the stony path. It is curious that nearly every one of the honors you would think would fall effortlessly to his fame, let alone his distinction, seems instead to have been obtainable only after strenuous struggle.

When he returned to Harvard after a glistening public career in 1948, he was accepted with no higher rank than lecturer, an ambiguity of status cleared up only after the University of Illinois invited him to be chairman of its department of economics; and Harvard responded by voting him a full professorship. The departmental vote would have been unanimous if Gottfried Haberler, a conservative colleague, had not, upon returning from vacation, filed a formal written dissent that he would no doubt have volubly …

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