There are dangers in a daughter writing her father’s biography: the danger that she will be too uncritical if her relationship with him were close and affectionate; or, as is more common these days, that she will be too critical if it were not. Similarly, she may rely too much on her own reminiscences or otherwise insinuate herself into her pages. Christina Scott has done a superb job of steering a clear course, and though her biography of her father, Christopher Dawson, could have been better, it could not have been much better.

Mrs. Scott has a sound sense for the telling detail. She knows that the principles revealed in Henry James’ rhetorical questions apply as much to the art of biography as to the art of fiction: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” She spends far less time in telling us what was her father’s character than in showing us. This is as it should be.

Take, for instance, her inclusion in full of her father’s reply to Christopher Hill’s scathing review of Dynamics of World History:

My attention has just been drawn to the article in your current issue by Christopher Hill on “The Church, Marx and History,” in which he states that “the late Mr. Dawson was not a great historian.”


I do not wish to assert that I am “great” but I do most emphatically deny that I am “late,” and I feel doubtful whether a writer who is unable to discover the truth in a contemporary matter of fact which is easily ascertainable is competent to survey the vast field which he has embraced in his article.

It seems to me that there is no more sense in asking, like Mr. Hill, “What is the use of history” than in asking what is the use of memory. An individual who has lost his memory is a lost individual, and a society that has no history and historical consciousness is a barbarous society. It is as simple as that.

Mrs. Scott allows incident to illustrate the character of her father’s associates as well, as when she writes about E. I. Watkins, Dawson’s oldest and dearest friend, “who once submitted a manuscript which he had typed on a machine without a ribbon saying that if the printer held it up to the light he would be able to read it.”

Dawson’s work ranged from the origins of culture in prehistoric Europe and the ancient East to the rise of Europe in the Middle Ages, from the spirit of the Oxford Movement to the entrenchment of the modern totalitarian state, and Mrs. Scott has done an admirable job of summarizing it. She is also highly successful in situating her father’s life within his intellectual milieu (hence the title of her book). In her preface we read, “To write the biography of one’s father is a daunting enough task and it becomes even more so when as it happens he was a scholar who lived almost entirely in the mind.” She handles this difficulty—so deftly that we never would have known of it had she not told us—by “treat [ing] his life as part of the social and religious history of the age in which he lived.” And so rye read of Dawson’s fellow writers at the Catholic publishing firm of Sheed & Ward; of his participation in the Covegno Volta, where he was one of the few European delegates to realize “that this was no historical conference as they had been led to believe but a ‘put-up job’ by Mussolini’s government”; and of his Vice-Presidency of the Sword of the Spirit, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley’s ecumenical movement, which was squashed by anti- Protestant bigotry.

Mrs. Scott’s biography was first published ill 1984 by Sheed & Ward, and this reprint by Transaction Publishers as part of Russell Kirk’s “Library of Conservative Thought” contains not only James Oliver’s appreciation of Dawson as a historian of ideas, which appeared in the first edition, but a typically fine introduction written by Kirk for this reprint and a new appendix, “Memories of a Victorian Childhood,” by Dawson himself. This last addition is especially welcome, autobiography complementing the biography that precedes it. In it we see the insight of a true conservative in search of historical meaning:

Western man is being submitted to the same process which he inflicted on more primitive peoples in the last century. As the Red Indian and the South Sea Islander saw their world and their way of living destroyed by the rifle and the railway and the trader, and were left culturally naked in an alien world, so we too have seen our world destroyed and our culture liquidated under the pressure of anonymous forces and impersonal techniques, which we created with one side of our minds as instruments of our limited purposes, but which have become our masters. . . . But . . . we cannot dismiss the past as dead and unimportant. If it is dead, it deserves to be recorded, no less than any other vanished civilization. If it is not dead, but only in a state of revolutionary change, we must study the past in order to discover what elements in its tradition can be recovered, what is lost beyond recall and what is indispensable to the continuity and the identity of Western culture.

What Dawson in his study of the past found to be indispensable to the continuity and identity of Western culture, indeed of all cultures, is that, in his daughter’s words, “every civilization [must recognize! the existence of a higher spiritual order that [is] above conflicting individual interests or the collective interests of the state.” As he himself put it in Religion and the Modern State, a work that should be read by every conservative, “Civilization is a road by which man travels, not a house for him to dwell in. His true city is elsewhere.”

This overarching theme of all of Dawson’s work is well communicated by Mrs. Scott. Nonetheless, we here find her book’s one real weakness. Even though she has summarized her father’s writings well, we are left wanting a broader, deeper analysis. To be fair, she did set out to write his biography and not a study of his work; yet, to a great extent, her father’s life was his work. To write a completely satisfying biography of Christopher Dawson, one must present a more satisfying look at his oeuvre. What Mrs. Scott gives us is certainly adequate, as far as it goes. One simply wishes she had gone further. It is a tribute to Dawson that we would like to see his work discussed more fully; it is an even greater one to Mrs. Scott that she is the one we would like to see doit.


[A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson, by Christina Scott (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) 272 pp., $34.95]