I SHOULD BEGIN with a declaration of interest, as a speaker is supposed to do in the House of Commons if his personal interests are even trivially touched by what he intends to say.
One of the essays in this book is a review Professor Galbraith wrote eight years ago (for Book World ) of a book two colleaguues and I wrote about the once extravagantly admired mutual-fund promoter, Bernard Cornfeld. Galbraith liked the book and said kind things about it, in spite of the fact that we unkindly mentioned in it that he once attended a conference sponsored by Cornfeld in Geneva.
I mention this circumstance -- let me admit with the ruthless self-analysis that is Galbraith's own hallmark -- partly lest I should be accused of intercontinental backscratching, but more because I am proud of the fact that Galbraith, who is a connoisseur of roguery, liked our book. The disclaimer leaves me freer to say how much I enjoyed his book.
It is a collection of miscellaneous papers, essays, book reviews, lectures and fragments of autobiography, most of which have already seen the light of day elsewhere: in Esquire , or Ms , or the Atlantic , or the New York Review of Books , or in some learned economic journal.
One of the amazing things about Galbraith is how hard he still tries -- in spite of age, in spite of eminence, in spite of private affluence even. He takes more trouble to polish the slightest peice of journalism than many a tenured professor or a nonfiction king with a half-million-dollar advance does. His Scots Presbyterianism, even if only inherited, is a potent motor. One can only be grateful, or as a Scots Presbyterian might say, rejoice and be exceeding glad.
Some of these pieces are certainly brief. Some must be called slight. Not all are conspicuously topical. There is even one that sets out to be funny and, I think, ends up as merely facetious. And the title is surely a disaster -- unless 'liberal' has now become such a dirty word in Boston that it sells books.
Never mind. No one can say that, in bundling up enouth of his articles and reviews to make a book, Galbraith's publisher has cheated us. This is full measure, pressed down and running over.
His editor, Andrea D. Williams, has divided the essays into four groups. The writings on economic subjects are naturally the most substantial group. There are miscellaneous reviews, and there is a group of reviews dealing with trickery and fraud in one form or another, in which merciless judgments on John Dean and Richard Nixon are juxtaposed, in the best Galbraithian manner, with reviews of books chronicling Sunday ponzi-artists, dryhole merchants, conmen, fraudsters and shills.
There is an essay on "Writing and Typing" that is one of the best things I have seen on the craft of writing. It is full of jewels: advice I wish I had been given at 18 (except, of course, that I was even less good at listening to advice then than I am now). The first lesson, according to Galbraith, has to do with the myth of inspiration:
"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand; they are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: they are a total illusion. . . . I am persuaded that, hangovers apart, most writers, like most other artisans, are about as good one day as the next. . . . The seeming difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol or imagination. All this means is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the results. It will be much the same."
There are good things in this volume on economics, including an incisive short biographical sketch of Thorstein Veblen and a luminous lecture on Adam Smith. But the most enjoyable are some of the autobiographical essays: a fragmentary journal of a recent trip around the world; a description of a train trip across Australia (leaving Paul Theroux in his dust); a memoir of Berlin; and a hilarious meditation on Galbraith's own FBI files.
To spend a few hours reading these assorted papers, in fact, is in faint replica like spending time in Galbraith's own company, which is to say, in as good company as there is -- always provided that he has made up his mind that you are not as much of a fool as he was at first inclined to suspect. Of course for $12.95, if you buy this book, you get past that barrier automatically.
The will, the polemic, the style, the towering egotism only just under control: these are familiar. What is often missed, and what shines forth from many of these papers, is the humanity and generositty of the man. What other liberal, abiding or otherwise, after reviewing 40 years off malicious lying and plain blunders in his own FBI files,, would go out of his way to pay tribute to the decency and fairness of the notebook-and-shoe-leather FBI agents who had faithfully recorded the good things people also said about him?
Radical: elitist: poliitical economist: technical economist: partygoer: name-dropper: compulsive traveler: secret worker: stylist: "statesman and buffoon": Galbraith is all of these things and more. But the abiding impression that remains with me from this volume is that of Voltaire on stilts -- of a man whose sardonic wit and careful urbanity are worn like masks to hide both the anger he feels for sham and complacement greed, and the pity he feels for their victims. I hope he is writing his autobiography. It will be one to look forward to.