As one who dislikes “psycho-biography” as a genre, I was fully prepared to dislike this dual biography of Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson. I was somewhat disarmed by the author’s Introduction, in which she attributes to West the observation that
it was impossible for biographers to know anything beyond the bare facts about the details of their subjects’ intimate lives or subjective experience. She was right. Arrogance and unadulterated conjecture are part of the game. But it is a fascinating game . . .
Susan Hertog is also the author of a similarly conceived and equally well-executed biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Both projects were aided by the pack-rat habits of her subjects. Thompson’s archive is at her alma mater, Syracuse University; West’s is at the well-heeled purchaser of her papers, the University of Tulsa. If nothing else, the author deserves a purple heart for the time she must have spent in these cities.
Her task was further aided by her subjects’ involvement with famous men. If H.G. Wells and Sinclair Lewis are not remembered as well as Charles Lindbergh, they were colossi in their time, and much has been written about both of them.
As with her previous biography, the author is concerned with her subjects as icons of feminism, with their efforts to balance (or not balance) their careers with the traditional requirements of “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.” She accurately concludes that, in their era, the success of these women required “super-human tenacity and grit,” but their careers also illustrated that “you cannot break the rules without paying the price.” That is the theme of The Age of Innocence; it is no disparagement of Hertog as a biographer to say that Edith Wharton made the same point sooner and more forcefully.
West sought “communion with reality [lest she] walk forever queer and small like a dwarf.” Both had sons who disappointed them; Anthony West, a respectable novelist, made a career of hating and defaming his mother; Michael Lewis became a modestly successful character actor who was a serious alcoholic when he died of lymphoma at 55.
West is described as “a brilliant writer but a lost and frightened woman, thoroughly dependent on her own intelligence and the vacillating loyalties of family and friends.” She credited herself with “a horrible life, a terrible childhood [in which she suffered sexual abuse by her deserting father] and a ghastly adult existence,” and “turned inward to study the psychodynamic of individuals and relationships seeking truth and relevance through the study of biography and history.” She is identified with no single great work of fiction; early in her career the novelist Hugh Walpole told her that her claim as a writer rested on “four books most of which were difficult to understand.” She is remembered less for her novels than for her two-volume work on prewar Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, consciously written as an antifascist work but whose reflections on culture and religion give it contemporary resonance. She is also remembered for her essays on the treason trials of fascists and communists assembled in The New Meaning of Treason, emphasizing their personal vulnerabilities, which the author unjustly states “eviscerat[e] standards of personal accountability and unbiased justice.” In this book she advances the contestable conclusion that “treason is an attempt to live without love of country which an individual can’t do, any more than love of family.”
If the lives of West and Thompson were parallel in their opposition to fascism and communism, the two women were very different people, though good friends. Thompson does not fully fit the author’s template of personal failure; her third marriage to the artist Maxim Kopf was a successful and happy one, and she had a good relationship with her stepson Wells Lewis, who was killed in the last days of World War II. West’s marriage to the banker Henry Andrews, though long-lasting, was largely a fiction in its later years.
West was assuredly the finer writer. Thompson’s prose, though improved by Sinclair Lewis, was straightforward and passionate; subtlety was not her strong suit.
I know I have good taste and a clear head. My creative gifts are negligible. But I should like to contribute to a clearer and deeper understanding of the things I understand. My gifts are pre-eminently social.
In the run-up to the 1948 and 1952 elections, Thompson’s friend Vincent Sheean, abetted at times by her friendly rival Clare Boothe Luce, sporadically advanced the proposition that Thompson would be a plausible presidential candidate. The aging Herbert Hoover pronounced this “flatly impossible,” while Thompson, entirely inaccurately, said “I am so un-gifted politically that I couldn’t be elected dog-catcher in my own village.”
Readers will not obtain from this book a good sense of the political ideas of either West or Thompson, nor of the dimensions of Thompson’s achievement. It was her early and insistent warnings about the character of Nazism, voiced in her newspaper column, over a national radio program, and on the stump, that laid the political foundation for Lend-Lease, without which the outcome of World War II might have been different. Her insistent and lonely criticism of the unconditional surrender policy after the Casablanca Conference and continuing into the postwar period similarly provided support for the policies ultimately adopted, under the impetus of the Cold War, with respect to both Germany and Japan, though for a long time she was virtually a minority of one in advancing them.
Thompson’s criticisms of the terrorism of the Irgun and of Israeli irredentism still resonate, were notably courageous, and resulted in her columns being dropped by the Washington Star, the New York Post, the Toledo Blade, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. Her position differed not at all from that of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, as expressed in the last chapter of the last edition of his memoirs, but, as Weizmann’s aide Meyer Weisgal observed, “as a Jew I was allowed to share Weizmann’s views of the terrorists, but Dorothy was not in the same position.” The campaign against her was orchestrated and all too successful: “I am a very old hand after all and when letter after letter is couched in almost identical phraseology, I do not think the authors have been guilty of telepathy.”
As a study of its subject’s personal and family lives, this book delivers on its promise. The author of its catalog card in the Library of Congress accurately summarizes it: “Rebecca West [and] Dorothy Thompson: Relations with men.” The book contains few and short quotations; the reader new to its subjects will not learn why their lives were significant for society, as distinct from those of other women.
It is probably just as well that Hertog does not venture far into politics; the book contains a number of errors large and small about history.
There is, for instance, an absurd reference to the Anschluss “reuniting Germany and Austria as the two countries had been under Hapsburg rule before the war.” She asserts that, apart from the Nazis, the Nationalists were “the only other party besides the Communists to get substantial votes,” which forgets the German Social Democrats. The Dresden bombings, she says, were “denounced by Marshall and Churchill,” a mischaracterization in view of their command responsibility. Given their help to Greece and Turkey and their stimulation of American aid, it is not fair to say that Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin “would not stem the tide of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe or the Balkans.” Nor is it correct to say of Leonard and Virginia Woolf that, “as zealous socialists, they were adept at denying the ruthlessness of Stalin”: Leonard was a vigorous anti-communist. Londoners did not have “three million compatriots [who] had died on foreign soil” in World War I, nor did “Parisians mourn . . . their six million who had died on the front.” These figures represented total casualties; the death figures were 1 million and 1.7 million, respectively. Though a New Yorker herself, Hertog oddly characterizes Thomas Dewey as “attorney general of New York City” rather than district attorney and asserts that, to get a New York divorce, a spouse needed to prove “‘cruel and inhuman’ behavior . . . or irrevocabl[e] desert[ion]”; in fact, the sole ground for divorce at the time was adultery. The proofreading is good, save for some proper names, those of Prince Sapieha and John Lukacs being misspelled.
The impression that abides is of the robust courage of both women. For Thompson, the daughter of a Methodist minister, courage had religious roots; the more tormented West ultimately concluded, “if people don’t believe in Christianity, they believe in anything else you tell them.” They lived in an era when the range of discussion, at least in America, was wider than it is now. Thompson in 1950 published in Commentary an article entitled “America Demands a Single Loyalty: The Perils of a Favorite Foreign Nation.” That could not be published in Commentary now, notwithstanding Thompson’s well-taken warning: “I greatly fear that one day the presently repressed resentments will flare up, not only into anti-Zionism but anti-Semitism here.”
[Dangerous Ambition: New Women in Search of Love and Power, by Susan Hertog (New York: Ballantine Books) 493 pp., $30.00]