When you are young, you cannot imagine that the old were ever young. As you get older, that becomes easier. Isaiah Berlin was in his sixties when I first met him in Oxford. Britain’s most celebrated public intellectual, an iconic figure with his heavy-rimmed spectacles, dark three-piece suit, and unforgettable, much-imitated, bubbling, allusive, rapid-fire conversation, had characteristically agreed to spend an evening with a small undergraduate society. To a nineteen-year-old student, he seemed close to Methuselah—although, as I would discover over a quarter-century of closer acquaintance, this was a Methuselah with a vast appetite and talent for gossip.
Letters, 1928–1946 shows what Isaiah Berlin was like when he was young. His life unfolds, through Henry Hardy’s meticulously edited first volume of his letters, in a sequence of expanding circles. The first circle is his close and supportive Russian-Jewish family, which had moved from Riga to England in 1921. There is a moving early letter from the nineteen-year-old Shaya, as he was then known, to his spirited, musical, romantically aspiring mother, Marie, consoling her (“I know that your position is not sweet”) for the frustrations of living with the pedestrian caution of his merchant father, Mendel Berlin. It ends with this admonition: “Remember: Life is Good; and always will be Good however ugly it looks….” Somehow that remained Isaiah’s personal belief through all the horrors of the twentieth century, and this fundamentally optimistic, life-affirming attitude is one of the qualities that made him such a stimulating person.
The entire volume is punctuated by such affectionate, loyal, reassuring letters to “Ma and Pa,” who are constantly worrying about his health, appearance, and so forth. Sometimes, reading them feels like eavesdropping. At age twenty-four, already a lecturer at New College, Oxford, he writes:
My dear mother: in answer to your questions in order: 1) I am taking my medicine. 2) I feel much better. The stomach is less troublesome. I am taking care about diet. 3) I have not taken the new handkerchieves with me so far as I know. I’ll look again, but I think not. 4) I have had 2 baths! 5. Nails etc. fairly, not very, clean. Doing my best.
No doubt Methuselah, too, had a fussing Jewish mother. Hardy also inserts at various points extracts from Mendel Berlin’s rather touching private biographical sketch of his son, writing of Isaiah as “you.”
The second circle is Oxford, to which he came as an undergraduate in 1928 and where he died in 1997. Oxford was central to Isaiah’s life—“London is heaven,” he writes from Washington in 1944, “but Oxford seventh heaven”—and these letters speak to us of a time when Oxford still confidently considered itself to be central to British culture, and beyond. He approvingly quotes a comment by the German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius that “the barometers of culture in England were in Oxford & Cambridge & not in London.” (No longer true, if it ever was.) And from his wartime stay …