A Case of Intellectual Independence

There are not many professors in any field equipped to produce, for example, learned essays on the novels of Primo Levi and the writings of the now- forgotten Manès Sperber—yet also able to turn their hand to, say, a close, diplomatic analysis of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Analysts of international relations, confident and polemical on the evolution of the European Union, exist, but few of them could deliver an erudite lecture on the oeuvre of Albert Camus. Scholars who could analyze the peculiarly Polish dimension of the theology of Karol Wojty a, the last pope, are doubtless in plentiful supply. But not many of them could sketch a humane, fully informed portrait of the work of Edward Said.

Through more than a decade of essays written for America’s foremost journals, Tony Judt has demonstrated that he belongs to each one of those rare, polymathic categories. The head of the Remarque Institute at New York University, Judt has moonlighted as a prolific and provocative essayist. Now a new collection of essays, most of them published originally in The New York Review, along with The New Republic (before he fell out with that magazine’s editors over Israel) and Foreign Affairs among others, confirms Judt as one of the most versatile public intellectuals working in the English language today. In twenty-four pieces, he covers an astonishingly broad range of twentieth-century life—from Whittaker Chambers to the state of the railways in Europe—almost always writing with authority, anchored in a depth and breadth of reading that few could match.

His enemies (and as Judt’s own postscripts to these pieces make clear, he has made quite a few) would probably snort at both the volume and the sometimes exotic provenance of the author’s references. They might note that when Judt was asked to assess the English-language edition of Pierre Nora’s three-part, seven-volume, 5,600-page work on French history and memory—a task that would have daunted even the most diligent reviewers—he spotted a “revealing” contrast between the preface to the new translation and the introduction to the French original. But to less jaundiced observers, such a remark suggests not that Judt wears his learning ostentatiously, but that he has been able to patrol a vast swath of history, politics, and culture without recourse to journalistic corner-cutting, maintaining instead—and nearly always—his scholarly rigor.

This variety of subject matter certainly sheds a favorable light on the author of Reappraisals, but it does not necessarily help bind these disparate essays into a coherent whole. In that sense, Reappraisals suffers from the fate of all journalistic anthologies: pieces that were written singly, and to stand alone, are suddenly required, by their presence between hard covers, to add up to something larger. Judt is certainly capable of writing over the distance, as it were: his last book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), despite its mammoth length, won particular praise for its coherence. But these essays …

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