Keynes: the public and private lives of the influential economist

John Maynard Keynes, Volume One: Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920, by Robert Skidelsky. New York: Viking. 447 pp. $24.95. Unlike Oscar Wilde, who said that he put only his talent into his work, reserving his genius for his life, John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) undoubtedly put his genius into his work. But this was a man who was not only an influential figure in Whitehall's corridors of power, but also a key figure in the literary Bloomsbury set, whose members were notorious for their unorthodox attitudes toward life, and particularly toward their sexuality, to say nothing of their opposition to the war that Keynes's efforts were helping to finance. And, in accordance with the best Bloomsbury tradition, Professor Skidelsky -- like Keynes -- sees the private inner life as being at least as important as the public life that made the great economist his reputation.

Considering the variety of Keynes's achievements and the complexity of Keynes himself, one is forced to ask if it is possible in this one volume to do justice to all the accomplishments of Keynes's first 37 years.

The answer is yes. Robert Skidelsky, Professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick in England, has written what must remain for the foreseeable future the standard work on this part of Keynes's life. Keynes won high academic honors as an economist; contributed significant work on that important imperial currency, the rupee; did more than perhaps any other Briton toward making possible the funding of the United Kingdom's war effort between 1914 and 1918; and, having tried and failed to ameliorate the Allied policy toward Germany at the 1919 Versailles Conference, went on to write the most influential and opinion-shaping account of that pivotal occasion, ``The Economic Consequences of the Peace.''

Professor Skidelsky has certainly surpassed Sir Roy Harrod's cautious biography, ``John Maynard Keynes'' (1951), until now the most authoritative one. Unlike Harrod, Skidelsky is extremely frank about his subject's homosexuality. Yet he wisely avoids drawing crude parallels between this and Keynes's unorthodoxies as an economist, as others have tried to do. This is that rare biography which manages to balance the public and private lives of its subject with grace and delicacy.

This volume does not cover the years in which Keynes developed the economic theories that became associated with his name and that are generally regarded as his most significant achievement. It ends, however, with the publication of his famous jeremiad, ``The Economic Consequences of the Peace,'' written in the white heat of passionate indignation in the months following the Versailles Conference in 1919, and published that same year. To say the book caused a sensation is perhaps to understate the effect it had. A blundering, rigid President Woodrow Wilson being outmaneuvered by a devious Prime Minister David Lloyd George and a bitter, unrelenting Premier Georges Clemenceau; a ``Carthaginian'' peace that was brutal and humiliating to the defeated; a rapacious bunch of victors grabbing whatever spoils they could. These images, which millions still retain, are directly traceable to Keynes's extraordinary book. For this was no dry work of the typical economist. Instead of the dreary ploddings of the ``dismal science,'' there is the vibrant imagery and biting wit of Bloomsbury. Influenced by Lytton Strachey's revolutionary work of historical portraiture, ``Eminent Victorians'' (published the previous year), Keynes gave full rein to his considerable powers of artistry and intellect.

Many ascribe to Keynes's book the ultimate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the United States Senate; certainly, many senators quoted from it during the debates. While this was unfortunate, it must also be said that, had the victorious powers heeded Keynes's urgent requests during the conference to act with more magnanimity -- both financially, with respect to reparations, and humanly, with regard to distribution of the war-guilt -- the tragedies of World War II might have been avoided.

We can anticipate with great eagerness the completion of Skidelsky's enterprise, and look forward to seeing how this creative economist was able to ease the travails of a world that had so stubbornly failed to heed his excellent advice.

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