David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. Over the past decade or so, Bromwich has carved out a second career as a social critic, writing regularly in publications such as the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Much of his writing there on the depredations of American power since 9/11 has been collected in a new book, “Moral Imagination”, which also contains essays on the history of American exceptionalism and the nature of cultural identity. The book establishes, too, a sort of pantheon of Bromwich’s moral and political heroes—notably Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and Dr Martin Luther King.
I spoke to Bromwich on the phone recently and began by asking him whether there are any models he consciously tries to emulate when writing in the journalistic, rather than the academic, mode.
DB: The models for it come mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hazlitt is one. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling are also writers I’ve learned from. Also Dwight Macdonald and Harold Rosenberg. And more than any of them, Orwell. Not, I would add, for the standard reasons—which I take to be because he told the truth about communism. Re-reading Orwell, I’ve found him to be quite an eccentric and disturbing writer, sometimes in ways I don’t find easy to admire. There’s a streak of cruelty in him. I think that was something he recognised in himself. And there’s maybe a streak of cruelty in the desire to tell the truth. He talks about this in his essay “Why I Write”. He realised early that he had an aesthetic interest in words and how to put them together, and a capacity for facing “unpleasant facts”. There’s no American who’s quite his equal. But then again, there’s been no British writer his equal either.
JD: That line of Orwell’s about facing “unpleasant facts” has become very famous. But it’s also been turned into a bit of a fetish among some of his followers. You mention Orwell in your discussion in the book of the “neoconservative moment” after 9/11. Now, Orwell was deployed by certain neoconservative writers—or fellow travellers of neoconservatism—to particular political ends during that period. One thinks of Christopher Hitchens, for instance.
I think Hitchens took a particular pleasure in going against the prejudices of his previous constituency—whatever that happened to…