Hirschmania

AdelmanMy review of Jeremy Adelman's wonderful new biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, was finally published in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday.

I say finally because I turned the thing in on March 18, and I think the editors only changed one word in the interim (switching out "doorstopper" for "doorstop," which seemed like a good move). I'm not complaining at all — one knows going in that a NYTBR review may take months to appear, and the Times paid me long ago. But it was still maddening to write something with great enthusiasm and then not see it for months and months and months. It took great willpower not to write Barry Gewen at the Book Review e-mail after e-mail asking, "When's it coming out? Huh? When?"

Anyway, the publication led me to go back and read some of the other things written lately about Hirschman and the Adelman biography. I had avoided other reviews at first because I feared they might taint mine, then because I was so frustrated that mine hadn't been published yet. Now I could finally savor them, and it turns out they're all worth savoring.

The first I read was an essay on Hirschman's legacy by Daniel Drezner. My review — and to a certain extent Adelman's book — focused on why Hirschman wasn't as influential as other economists of his generation such as Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson. Drezner, though, is a political scientist, and from the perspective of a political scientist Hirschman was pretty danged influential. "Anyone working on issues of economic power, economic development or economic ideas cannot do so without either building on or tangling with Hirschman’s legacy," Drezner writes, concluding that Hirschman's work "is the purest example of political economy since the days of Adam Smith."

After that I moved on to Roger Lowenstein's essay in the Wall Street Journal. Lowenstein was the "journalist friend" mentioned in my review who urged me to read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, and his piece focuses mainly on that brilliant book. Lowenstein makes a heartfelt plea for more voice and less exit, or at least a healthy balance between the two. "Hirschman saw that when organizations make it easy to exit, voice is weakened," he writes. "Yet, for voice to be effective, a possibility of exit must be present." (The "business-school professor" who pushed The Passions and the Interests on me was Rebecca Henderson of HBS.)

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell got a lot more space than Drezner or Lowenstein or I, and he makes good use of it. When I first saw the headline ("The Gift of Doubt") in the magazine a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was of course, &^%#$@£ Gladwell, coopting Hirschman to say some facile thing or other. But it actually turns out to be a great and complex essay. It cannot, thus, be summed up in a paragraph, but I especially loved this passage about Hirschman and his brother-in-law and mentor, Eugenio Colorni:

Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t.

Then there's Cass Sunstein's take in The New York Review of Books. Sunstein may be the most Hirschmanesque (Hirschmanian?) of modern public intellectuals. He crosses disciplinary boundaries, he writes for scholars and for laypeople, he mixes hope with skepticism, he doesn't think the fact that most plans go awry is a reason not to make plans. "Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world," Sunstein writes. "It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories." Sort of like nudging.

I finished Adelman's book totally enamored of Hirschman and his way of looking at the world, but dubious of how much impact such a doubt-filled approach could have in an intellectual arena dominated by dueling certainties. After reading what everybody else had to say, I'm a bit more hopeful. Hooray for that!

One other thing that I thought about saying in the review but decided not to was that, for the first couple hundred pages or so, I thought Adelman's book might be the best biography I had ever read, period. It mixed the politics and the personal so smartly and so wisely that I was in awe of the accomplishment. I'm still in awe, but the second half of the book (about Hirschman's academic career) just couldn't be as compelling as the first, so T. Harry Williams' Huey Long retains its place at the top of my list. Although one of these days I should probably reread that to see if it's really as good as I remember.

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