George F. Kennan has had two careers. The first was as a diplomat.
A conservative realist who was the first head of the State Department's
policy planning unit in 1947, Kennan coined the word "containment"
for American strategy toward the Soviet Union. But his principled
criticism of what he considered an overambitious foreign policy
reduced his influence in government from the mid-1950's onward,
while giving him a new audience among the intellectual left. At
the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J., where he
has been a scholar since 1953, he has spent the last half century
as a historian, best known for "American Diplomacy: 1900-1950"
(1951) and several volumes of memoirs. In "An American Family,"
Kennan, now in his 90's, turns to the link between national history
Kennan limits his scope to the history of the first three generations
of his family in North America -- and limits it further by focusing
on the generations bearing the paternal surname ("only some 3
percent of my own genetic inheritance would seem to have been
derived," he acknowledges, "from the first Kennan to have arrived
on North American soil"). The choice is influenced, one suspects,
by his interest, manifest throughout his work, in the rural America
of the colonial period and the early republic, which has provided
him with a standard against which to judge modern American society.
"From his Puritan vantage point," Eugene Rostow once wrote, "Kennan
has excoriated what he regards as the vulgarity, materialism and
bad taste of the American culture; its deplorably simplistic and
irrational politics . . . and its increasing alienations from
the true sources of moral purity -- the life of small agricultural
communities." Kennan's epilogue begins: "This concludes what I
picture to myself as the innocent stage in the Kennan family's
history. It was innocent mainly in the sense that it involved
no residence in any large urban community." He adds: "Reviewing
what I know of their lives, I cannot find in them any instances
of deviousness, sordidness, or cynicism. . . . And trying to view
them as individuals, I am unable to find among them a single weakling,
a single physical invalid."
If these passages appeared at the beginning rather than the end
of the book, few readers might be tempted to continue. But Kennan's
virtues as a historian rescue his narrative from the virtues of
his ancestors. Because the documentary evidence for this as for
most families is limited, Kennan is forced to construct scenarios
that plausibly explain minor historical mysteries: why and how
James Kennan of Dumfries, Scotland, born between 1715 and 1720,
arrived in Massachusetts before 1744, or why in the 1790's his
son George moved his family to Vermont.
That these mysteries are minor is what makes them familiar and
interesting; for most people, after all, the highlights of life,
from births to marriages to deaths, are precisely those preserved
in family records. In his conjectures, Kennan is guided both by
a shrewd sense of character and by an impressive knowledge of
the folkways of his New England ancestors. The former is evident
in his inferences, from scant data, about the state of the "rather
sudden" marriage of George Kennan and his slightly older wife
Abigail in the 1790's. Was it really "young love," he asks: "For
a girl of a simple country family of that time to reach the age
of 24 and be still unmarried was to find herself in a precarious
situation." His grasp of New England traditions enables Kennan
to solve other mysteries, at least to his satisfaction: "The departure
and disappearance of Aaron Booth must have left the Kennans with
two houses on new property they were taking over. And this served
more than one purpose. For it was a firm and longstanding rule
of New England society that when a son married, he must never
try to take his bride and progeny back into his parents' home
for regular residence."
Kennan's conjectural history of his early ancestors (and it is
conjectural, despite the use of "plainly" and "it is clear") is
enriched and varied by vignettes about striking or influential
neighbors and by discursions into regional history and communal
politics. What might have been a dry discussion of the debate
between liberal and conservative Calvinists in New England has
practical consequences for Thomas Kennan, an ordained Congregational
minister: "And one of the positions of the strictly Calvinistic
conservative faction was that no one who had not had some form
of formal academic training in the field of theology ought to
considered eligible for a pastoral position. Thomas Kennan, of
course, lacked any such training. So it would not have been in
any way surprising had the influence of this powerful faction
been brought to bear against his being given any pulpit within
the state of Vermont."
A modest book that succeeds on its own terms, "An American Family"
might be of interest to readers curious about their own history,
as well as to students of New England tradition and one of that
tradition's major contemporary representatives, George F. Kennan.
Copyright 2000, The New York Times