Peter Viereck, RIP

One of the great minds of 20th century American conservatism died on Friday. From the LA Times obit:

Peter R. Viereck, a historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and political philosopher who was spurned by the modern conservative movement despite his central role in its birth, died May 13 at his home in South Hadley, Mass., after a long illness. He was 89.

Viereck was the author of nine volumes of poetry, including "Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949, and "Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987," an epic poem 20 years in the writing.

…Viereck also was a political thinker, whose provocative 1949 book, "Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt," defined the modern conservative movement.

"This was the book which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force," historian George H. Nash wrote in his 1976 book, "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America."

"It was this book which boldly used the word 'conservatism' in its title — the first such book after 1945. At least as much as any of his contemporaries," Nash wrote, "Peter Viereck popularized the term 'conservative' and gave the nascent movement its label."

Last year, Viereck was featured in a New Yorker magazine profile that renewed interest in his political writing from the 1940s and '50s. Called "The First Conservative: How Peter Viereck Inspired — and Lost — a Movement," the October 2005 article by Tom Reiss provoked heated reaction from the mainline conservative journal National Review.

"The true story is that Viereck was onstage during the creation of modern conservatism, but only in the opening scene," National Review political reporter John J. Miller wrote. "Then he walked away, never to be heard from again, except occasionally as a heckler."

That last remark, of course, speaks immensely in Viereck's favor. Though I disagree with Viereck on several points myself — his defense of the New Deal, for one — he is to be celebrated both for his humane conservatism and for his early sense of the dangers inherent in the populist-militarist spirit of the Cold War right. He wrote in the author's note to the 1962 edition of Conservatism Revisited:

Today the new conservatism has at least half way degenerated into a facade for either plutocratic profiteering or fascist-style thought-control nationalism, that same fascist nationalism against which the book [i.e. the first edition of Conservatism Revisited] had proposed liberal-conservative unity.

That liberal-conservative unity was both Lockean and Burkean. He was read out of the conservative movement for his heresies, including his criticisms of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. (Both of whom I like in some of their aspects; but the great arc of Cold War conservatism was away from liberalism — in the older sense of the word — and decency and toward bloodshed and hardened ideology.) A prophet is without honor in his own movement. See Tom Reiss's terrific New Yorker essay on Viereck from last year — "The First Conservative."

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One thought on “Peter Viereck, RIP

  1. R J Stove May 21, 2006 / 11:43 pm

    There’s an interesting, well researched, and conspicuously fair-minded biography of Peter V’s dad – the eccentric poet and propagandist George S. Viereck – by Niel [sic] Johnson (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1972). Peter V plays little more than a walk-on role in this book, but it provides insight as to how PV emerged, what he was reacting against, etc.

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