Letter to Van Wyck Brooks
August 2, 1943
Dear Mr. Brooks:
I appreciate your invitation and have thought about it carefully, but I end by deciding that I had better not accept it. I expect to be in Washington on September 9, half-way through a special job. I could let it go at that and spare you some annoyance and myself some embarrassment. But I want to answer your letter with the same seriousness that prompted it and so I go on, I hope not offensively.
In the first place, I think I should not contribute anything to the small group you are calling together. I could argue with you amiably, I believe, though God seems to have put me together according to a formula which keeps me in opposition to your ideas, and others whom you name would similarly have my respect. Thus, though I have vigorously attacked various stands and books of Cowley's, I have always respected his ideas, I have always respected his ideas while rejecting them and have liked him personally. But still others you name are, if I understand their writing, so remote from the ways of thinking I trust that it would be idle for me to sit down and try to talk things over with them. I should be estopped in advance from taking them seriously, I should add nothing to a discussion in which they took part, and I should be wasting not only their time and yours and mine but that of the group as a body trying to reach sensible conclusions.
That, however, is unimportant: it is the larger purpose that runs head on into my disbelief. The truth is, I am constrained to doubt the utility not only of your smaller meeting but of such projects as the Conference itself. The list of those who have convoked it is studded with names I respect, some of them friends of mine, many others my allies or at least supporters of the general ideas I hold. But I believe profoundly that their meeting together cannot accomplish anything toward the end in view. I will enhance their feeling of unity and it will produce much intelligent and enjoyable talk; it may clarify their ideas and, perhaps, enable them to write more pertinently and effectively. But it seems to me that the "intellectual and spiritual bases of enduring peace" are not to be sought in or furthered by meetings of writers and intellectuals. It seems to me that writers and intellectuals who hope to do something about those bases, if they attend any meetings at all, ought to attend meetings of people who are concerned with them effectively; meetings, say, of political parties, labor unions, business men, war veterans and others through whom the energies of peace, whether intellectual or spiritual, will find expression. I believe that writers and intellectuals isolate and insulate themselves too much from the reservoirs of energy, and convocations of writers and intellectuals have always seemed to me ineffective, and not only ineffective but unrealistic, and not only unrealistic but irresponsibly frivolous. I hope that I say this without arrogance -- in an effort to show you why I should not be able to take part in such discussions with belief.
Finally, I should feel some constraint in your presence. I have recently sent to the printer the manuscript of some lectures I delivered last spring, and in the course of them I again attack your books. The attack is certainly sincere and, I believe, thoroughly respectful. It is conducted, I think, solely as part of the warfare of ideas. But I am a weak vessel and before this have abandoned stands which I ought to have maintained because I found that so-and-so was a good fellow and it seemed a shame to contend with him. I resisted impulses of Hans Zinsser's -- he had much the same role in my life, I believe, that he had in yours -- to bring us together so that we might iron out our differences, because it seemed to me important that the edge of difference ought not to be dulled by any discovery that it was pleasant to spend an evening talking and drinking together. So now. There are issues between us. They seem to me fundamental in the cause for which the Conference is called. They have to be argued out. Unquestionably it is weak-willed of me, but I am essentially a genial soul with little backbone and I am afraid that a familiar consequence would follow once more: that I should begin to find persuasive reasons why I ought to suppress or at least modify what amounts to a statement of belief -- oh, Brooks is a nice chap, he's had as hard a life as the rest of us, in the larger sense we're all working toward the same end, and why make such a fuss? In my own efforts to define the intellectual and spiritual basis for an enduring peace -- not an important effort but all I have -- that would amount to a catastrophe.