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Moral Imagination: Essays
Princeton University Press, 2014
376 pp., $27.95
Bromwich's Bracing Distinctions
David Bromwich in his career as an essayist has run contrary to most trends among public intellectuals. For one thing, he is one. And not just by today's lax standards either, but by the standards of a time when "public intellectual" did not encompass after-dinner speakers, popularizers, and one-man brands. Equally he is an exception to the decline in the quality of prose that has struck those high- and middlebrow publications where public intellectuals ply their trade. This trend, not coincidentally, has proceeded exactly as rapidly as the man of letters has been supplanted by the tenured academic, who, for all his qualifications, seems to have difficulty expressing himself clearly, much less beautifully. Despite being a tenured professor himself—at Yale University, where, I should disclose, I was briefly a student of his—Bromwich as a stylist belongs to the older, better class.
Moral Imagination is one of two books by Bromwich published this spring and, as a collection of essays, the one in which his work as a public intellectual is most on display. The other is a biography of Edmund Burke, which has been Bromwich's scholarly project for the better part of a decade. Apart from the title "Moral Imagination," a phrase which comes from the Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke is mostly absent from this book. The writers and thinkers treated at length are listed in the preface: Wordsworth, Ruskin, Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. Apart from Ruskin, this sounds discouragingly like the list of people you most admire that one might hear from presidential candidates in a primary debate, but Bromwich is able to turn these authors to more interesting use than a politician would, perhaps because he has been saturating his mind with Burke for so many years, which for a man of the Left was bound to yield uncommon results.
The keystone essay of the first section of Moral Imagination is "A ...