The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 15, 2017

Hart, Jeffrey
Mark C. Henrie - 12/14/11
Lifespan: (1930– )

An eclectic thinker and personality, National Review senior editor, and long-time professor of English at Dartmouth College, Jeffrey Hart has contributed to our understanding of eighteenth-century literary and political figures such as Samuel Johnson, Viscount Bolingbroke, and Edmund Burke. He has also studied the modern American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in an attempt to reconcile conservative principles with optimistic American experience. During graduate study in English literature at Columbia University in the late 1950s, Hart was influenced by Lionel Trilling, and an appreciation for modernism in art has remained a distinguishing feature of his work.

In the early 1960s, Hart concentrated on his studies of eighteenth-century England. In Viscount Bolingbroke (1965), he argued that, in the thought of the Tory humanists, the traditional values of Western culture, heretofore taken for granted, “become in some part critical, modes of attack upon other values that are beginning to prevail.” In other words, “the traditional conception of society, giving way before the commercial and then the industrial revolutions, became a component of the politics of protest.” This idea of what might be called a “critical” traditionalism, a conservatism of protest and opposition, has remained with Hart, though it necessarily underwent reformulation after the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s.

In the later 1960s and early 1970s, Hart became increasingly active in conservative political and journalistic circles. During this period he served as a speechwriter for both Ronald Reagan (1968) and Richard Nixon (1968, 1972); he launched a syndicated column through King Features (1969); he wrote The American Dissent (1966), which chronicled the developing thought of the National Review circle; and he became a senior editor of National Review (1968). In 1968 he was also received into the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1980s, Hart’s interests shifted to contemporary social and cultural criticism and to historical narratives of recent American history. His books, When the Going Was Good! American Life in the 1950s (1982) and From This Moment On: America in 1940 (1987) recalled the innocence of a period when “traditional American values” were not under attack, a time when even conservatives could look forward to a bright future for America. His most recent work is The Making of the American Conservative Mind (2005), an eclectic and highly personal account of the history of National Review that takes to task the magazine and the Bush administration for, as he sees it, entangling conservatism with utopian foreign policy notions and the authoritarian and unrealistic goals of evangelical Christianity.

Hart’s thought is difficult to characterize. His deep skepticism about the exercise of state power and his affection for free markets give a libertarian slant to some of his commentary. Yet a clear element of cultural conservatism emerges in his defense of traditional order in the academy, and he calls himself a traditionalist. These seemingly conflicting emphases could be explained within the terms of Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” paradigm. But Hart’s thought is more protean than this. In the early 1980s he criticized “young fogies,” who seemed to believe that the main content of conservatism was “the refusal of experience.” To the contrary, Hart maintained that the great modern sin is “the great refusal”—the unlived life—and that an American conservatism must embrace an optimistic sense of “possibility.”

Furthermore, claiming that “the average American is a modernist in his bones,” Hart argued that American conservatism must work out a “modern” relationship to “tradition.” But, he continued, to be modern is to be conscious of a break with tradition. To be modern is to be conscious of one’s own novelty. How can one be a “traditionalist” while breaking with tradition? Hart gave no clear answer, though he seemed to believe that elements of a tradition could be appropriated by American conservatives eclectically and creatively.

This ambivalence between traditionalism and modernism has remained a perplexing problem for Hart. In an important essay, “Johnson, Boswell, and Modernity,” published in his Acts of Recovery (1989), Hart observed that Boswell and Johnson each experienced a heady feeling of nearly limitless possibility when they arrived in London; each could sense an immense freedom for self-creation open to them in the metropolis. This is the modern experience. But while Boswell abandoned himself to a parade of impersonations, of improvised “selves,” Johnson intransigently defended a single and fixed—but self-created—role for himself in “the great system of society.” If we seek a model for how a critical traditionalist can come to terms with the modern condition, Hart points us ultimately to Dr. Johnson.

Further Reading
  • Hart, Jeffrey. “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to a Modern American Conservatism.” In The New Right Papers, edited by Robert W. Whitaker, 36–47. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
  • ———. Political Writers of Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Knopf, 1964.
  • ———. Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • ———. Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
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