An American Prophet

“A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country,
and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

—Mark 4:4

A half-dozen biographical essays or theses have now been written on George Kennan, including John Lukacs’s recent and compelling George Kennan: A Study of Character (2007).  This latest endeavor, by Lee Congdon, is an effort to assess Kennan as a literary figure rather than as a political one.  In this, the author only partially succeeds: His background as an historian assures that his paramount interest is in Kennan’s political ideals, not his literary style or form.  Yet Congdon has provided a succinct and useful summary of Kennan’s essential ideas.

He begins with a reference to Kennan’s interest in his own antecedents, what Kennan memorably referred to in a passage (not cited by Congdon) as “the golden chain that binds the generations.”  Kennan found in this inheritance a tendency toward practicality, to empirical rather than deductive approaches to human experience, to intellectual independence which “limited his ability to form intimate associations with others . . . [making him] a man apart, an observer of, rather than a participant in, modern life.”  Congdon refers to Kennan’s father in particular, a reticent man, but one with an aesthetic...

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