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George F. Kennan: An American Life

John Lewis Gaddis's biography is an important examination of a man who shaped the current American way of life.

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Born in 1904, Kennan, the son of Kossuth Kent Kennan, a successful Wisconsin tax attorney (his mother, Florence James Kennan, died when George was an infant), the young boy grew up in comparative privilege. He spent endless hours in his father’s library, “preferring the company of books to those of grown-ups.” And though there were many happy times spent with his mother’s families, the Frosts and the James, the Kennans, George believed, shared a certain darker temperament. He later wrote they lacked the capacity for “gaiety, phantasy, humor, the courage to be honest with yourself, and the self-discipline to learn to sin gracefully and with dignity, rather than to try unsuccessfully not to sin at all.” He added that they passed along neuroses “like the family Bible.”

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Having “scraped by” his college entrance examinations, Kennan enrolled at Princeton in 1921. By all accounts, he was “healthy, handsome and clever.” But he later described his initial experience there in terms worthy of Dickens: “I knew not a soul in college or town. I was given the last furnished room in the most remote of those gloomy rooming houses far off campus to which, at the time, late-coming freshmen were relegated.… Princeton was for me not exactly the sort of experience reflected in 'This Side of Paradise.' ” He says he lived in penury, but eventually managed to have fun – enjoying relatively innocent pranks, going to proms, visiting his sister in New York City, and joining the Key and Seal, one of the school’s numerous and distinctive “eating clubs.” In June, 1924, he and a Princeton classmate traveled on a shoestring to Europe, and some of the more stressful moments of the trip prompted a habit Kennan would carry with him throughout his life: writing poems.

After Princeton, Kennan went to work as a Foreign Service officer in the State Department. He traveled widely in Eastern Europe, and in 1929 was ordered to move to Berlin, where he was to commence Russian language and history studies. By 1931, these studies led him to adopt a hard-edged ideology: Communists, he asserted, combined “innate cowardice” and “intellectual insolence.”  He then took aim at American liberals, “who now find the Soviets so pleasant, [but] will be the first ones to be crushed in the clash.” That same year, Kennan met and married Anna Elisabeth “Annalise” Sørensen, who had come to Berlin from Norway “ostensibly to learn German.”

Gaddis attempts to explain, in diction reminiscent of a geometry lecture, how Kennan’s character exuded a “triangular” nature – with its three points comprising “professionalism” (as one of the best young Russian specialists), “cultural pessimism” (a doubt whether Western civilization could survive challenges from external adversaries), and “personal anguish” (how would a man tormented by self-doubt fit into all of this?) Gaddis’s separate contention that Kennan often contradicted himself would seem to bolster this analysis. Kennan managed to chronicle some those self-doubts and other melancholy observations in diary entries that Gaddis meticulously recounts.


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