The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman, by William L. O'Neill, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 339 pp., $14.95.
The content and purpose of freedom to my mind, is to let men accept what appeals to them, and live their lives as they want to, so long as they do not encroach injuriously upon the lives of others.
As an ardent fan of Max Eastman, I didn't walk, I ran to my nearest bookstore to get the Eastman biography, The Last Romantic, by William O'Neill, a professor of history at Rutgers University. I knew the book was in the process of being written two years ago when I was interviewing Evette Eastman (Eastman's widow) in New York. Even at that time she expressed reservations about it, and now, after having read it, I can understand why. (O'Neill does acknowledge that Mrs. Eastman disagrees sharply with his assessment of Max.)
The Last Romantic gives a lackluster account of the fascinating life of Eastman with a heavy dose of O'Neill's critique of Eastman's political philosophy (a progression from Marxism to free-market libertarianism). There are a few moments of insight into Eastman, the man, and some valid criticism of moments in his political/philosophical behavior. But generally speaking O'Neill is completely insensitive to this man someone described as "genial, easy-going, wayward, passionately individualistic, with a colorful life full of personal emotions and adventures, his gifts flowing out in many directions; a dramatic figure, a Bohemian, a free soul whose center of gravity is always with himself."
If that is the man O'Neill is writing about, his book certainly keeps the secret. With a pseudo-academic scalpel O'Neill cuts out and throws away so much of the Eastman story that the holes are bigger than the parts remaining.
Max Eastman had an unrelenting craving for individual freedom, a mind brilliant in grasping the discipline and logic of scientific facts and need for progress, a gentle and talented poetic sense as well as ability to express it both in prose and poetry, a horror of organized dogmas (be they religious or political), a sensitive, sensuous demand of love, and a magnificent predominating sense of humor. He lived among the most famous personages of the period (1883-1969) and amid some of the most consequential events of our political and social future. Although he wrote about them—prolifically—he lived them with all the sensitivities and passions that come with living, not just observing; of thinking, not just following. His is a story of love—physical love, adventurous love, educational love, idealistic love of a time when one can be free from those who can never be free enough themselves to let anyone else attain the experience.
In fairness to O'Neill, he does admit in his preface that he is a historian, not a biographer, and therefore has put his emphasis on ideas rather than on experiences, and that "it is the writer and not the man in whom I am most interested." But then why call this book a biography? Why subtitle it "A Life of Max Eastman"? Why not call it, in fairness to the reader, what it is: An O'Neill Critique on the Political Rise and Fall of Max Eastman. Throughout the book Eastman is portrayed as brilliant during his socialist years and all but a demented lost soul when he turned away from it to embrace the free market.
Part of what makes O'Neill's book dry is its lack of humor and unimaginative approach to the Eastman story, which is so much more than a brilliant man's struggle with Marxism—the Eastman story also overflows with wit, humor, and "the enjoyment of living." O'Neill simply strikes out in this area. In missing the magic of Eastman's writing, he becomes a sterile biographer.
But he apparently has little or no interest in (or understanding of) Eastman's "Journey through an Epoch" as a whole. His interest is more to narrate what to him is the degeneration of a man who was once (as a socialist) "fighting dogma, defending science and experimental thought, exalting liberty, deploring the obstacles, concrete and theoretical, to it," and who ended up defending capitalism, studying Mises and Hayek, and writing for the Reader's Digest and National Review. To O'Neill, one could not sink to lower depths. "Max had turned against socialism," and for O'Neill the results were catastrophic.
On page 205 of his book O'Neill states: "If there is to be little or no socialism where lies the hope of reform? Max was vague on this point because he wasn't sure. Later he decided that undiluted capitalism was the only basis for liberty. But recent history proves there is another, better way, though for ideological reasons Max refused to see it. Had he not become so conservative, he might have completed his argument in this way. Socialism remains a beautiful dream. In real life it has been proven unnecessary by the welfare states of Scandinavia. In combining some socialism with a great deal of private ownership, they have reached levels of prosperity, equity, and personal freedom that the founders of socialism thought only a revolution could achieve. These just societies are unexciting. The militant young of the world do not sing their praises. They are to be cherished all the same."
Regardless of the skepticism some might have about cherishing the "just" Scandinavian welfare states, O'Neill obviously feels strongly about forsaking the concepts of socialism. His personal philosophical and economic beliefs are his concern, but the inability to discuss intellectually the relationship between a planned economy and individual freedom does little for his academic qualifications to write a biography of Eastman.
Again O'Neill: "Max was a rebel by nature, a capitalist only from necessity. The difference shows. Socialism had been the one-grand passion of his political life, an affair of the mind and heart. With free enterprise he made a marriage of convenience." Memo to Dr. O'Neill: Max Eastman's love affair was with freedom—his passion was in searching for the means to it.
O'Neill never quotes Eastman's most articulate explanation of why he "changed sides." It is well worth recalling if for no other reason than to justify the charge that O'Neill's bias keeps from his readers Eastman's journey. Eastman writes: "I had believed, or hoped, that when people could no longer compete for private property they would compete for honorific attainments. Merit, instead of money, would be the object of endeavor.…It did not occur to me that the new goal might be power—still less that the new rulers by getting power would manage to get most of the money as well. I had to learn also that power directly exercised can be more hostile to freedom, more ruthless, more evil in its effect upon the character of the wielder, than power wielded indirectly through a preponderance of wealth."
For the reader who wants to read about Eastman's colorful life full of personal emotions and adventures (both of mind and body), I highly recommend the second volume of his autobiography, Love and Revolution (Random House, 1964). For William L. O'Neill, I suggest that a little more reading of Mises and Hayek might improve his understanding of Eastman…and of economics. It certainly would have improved this biographical attempt.
Patty Newman is writing a screenplay of the Max Eastman story.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman".