Peter Viereck

Poet and conservative pundit

Saturday 10 June 2006 00:00 BST

Peter Viereck was unusual in combining remarkable gifts as a poet and as a political philosopher, though he was determined never to mix the two. From Milton's Areopagitica onwards, poets have made forays into politics that in modern times have usually been unfortunate - such as the malign lunacy of Ezra Pound's wartime broadcasts, or the egocentric dabbling of Robert Lowell in anti-Vietnam War protests. Yet, in Viereck's case, his considerable reputations in both arenas were almost entirely independent of each other.

Viereck was born in 1916 in Manhattan and grew up on the Upper West Side. His father, George Sylvester Viereck, was a German-born journalist for Hearst newspapers and, in youth, himself a poet of promise. He retained a passionate admiration for his homeland which was to land him in trouble in both world wars, the first time from his association with the sinking of the Lusitania (though he was never charged), the second for his role as a middleman in funding Third Reich support of American Nazi sympathiser groups.

Curiously, Viereck senior had in the inter-war years became an advocate and populariser of psychoanalysis and, according to his son, was briefly analysed by Sigmund Freud himself during one of his visits to Vienna. Yet his gut feelings were always pro-German, and he served four years in an American penitentiary during the Second World War for conspiring to help the Nazis.

By this time his son Peter, along with his brother, was serving in the Allied forces. He had graduated from Harvard in 1937 summa cum laude, winning university prizes for both prose and poetry, and stayed on to do first an MA, then a PhD in History (he received his doctorate in 1942).

Before his father's conviction, Viereck had already distanced himself from his pro-Fascist sympathies, and made his mark as a precocious political commentator. In an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1940, the 23-year-old Peter Viereck argued that the liberal orthodoxy of the time, because of its inherent belief in progress and human perfectibility, was incapable of resisting the depredations of either Communist or Fascist ideologies. A conservative view of human evil was needed to resist its new incarnations, and only traditional values and Christian beliefs could effectively counter-attack.

Viereck was at pains to distance himself from the invidious ethnic or religious distinctions made by those on the far right. In particular, he took exception with the racism of Nazi ideology which his father (who was not, for all his German "patriotism", overtly racist) chose to ignore:

Political anti-Semitism is no isolated program. It is the first step in an ever-widening revolt of mob instinct against all restraints and liberties. It is the thin opening wedge for the subversion of democracy, Christianity, and tolerance in general.

He explored this further in his first book, Metrapolitics: from the Romantics to Hitler (1940), a precociously penetrating study of Nazism's roots which Arthur Schlesinger later praised for its diligent tracing of "Nazi racism and messianism to the excesses of German romanticism".

During the war, both Peter Viereck and his younger brother were barred from becoming officers because of their father's treason. George Sylvester junior was fighting as an infantryman in the invasion of Italy, and news of his death reached Peter Viereck in Tunisia, where he was on leave from his duties in Algiers in an intelligence unit, looking at Roman ruins from the Carthage wars centuries ago. He had seen his brother last the year before when they had found coincidentally found themselves shipmates en route to the Mediterranean:

"And what if one of us,"
I asked last May, in fun, in gentleness,
"Wears doom, like dungarees, and doesn't know?"
He laughed. "Not see Times Square again?" The foam,
Feathering across that deck a year ago,
Swept those five words - like seeds - beyond the seas
Into his future . . . "

Teaching briefly at Smith College after the war, Viereck was then torn between offers to teach at the University of Chicago or at Mount Holyoke, a first-rate but decidedly genteel women's college in western Massachusetts. Somewhat surprisingly, he opted for the slightly backwater confines of Holyoke, where he was to teach for 50 years. The decision typified the slightly contrarian nature of the man, and his distaste for the limelight. At Chicago he would have enjoyed a high profile, and featured prominently among the development of conservative thought for which the university's politics and economic departments became famous. At Holyoke, he was always more of a lone force, his isolation as a conservative academic greater in the liberal North-East.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for his first collection of poems, Terror and Decorum, Viereck was most active in these years promulgating a brand of conservatism which was soon submerged by more rigid ideologues. Viereck took an essentially Burkean view, debunking the debunkers, arguing for reform rather than revolution in any circumstance, and then only when based on long-standing social customs and traditions.

The moderation of the approach made him seem conservative to progressive opinion in the United States, but it also exposed him to sniping from right-wing forces which were becoming increasingly more radical. On the key issue of Joe McCarthy, the Senate's demagogic scourge of the Communist menace, Viereck failed what became an essential litmus test of American conservatives, preferring to heap opprobrium on the dishonesty of McCarthy's tactics than to excuse him by finding greater sin in his opponents.

Viereck's increasing alienation from the American conservative movement climaxed with his article of 1962 in The New Republic, "The New Conservatives: one of its founders asks what went wrong", in which, as a profile in The New Yorker last year noted, "he depicted a movement infiltrated by religious fundamentalists, paranoid patriotic groups, and big-business leaders, united in their loathing for the cosmopolitan élites on the nation's coasts". Given the elegant, cultivated and almost European aspect to Viereck's work, and the fact that he had chosen Massachusetts over the Midwest, it was clear where his own sympathies lay. For this, and for sins of taste such as his unconcealed disdain for the conservative opinion leader William Buckley, there was from conservative America no forgiveness.

Increasingly Viereck now focused on his work as an historian, and he was always writing poems, including the long sequence The Applewood Cycles (1987). Though intriguing, complex, and technically well-wrought, these later poems never seem to touch the fresh lyricism of his first collection.

A first-rate translator, and respected historian of Russia, Viereck was instrumental in supporting the poet Joseph Brodsky's highly creative exile in the US. Learned yet modest, intense but moderate, Viereck had an awkward individuality that could border on the eccentric. He was married three times, twice to Anya de Markov, a Russian resistance fighter he met in Italy during the Second World War.

Andrew Rosenheim

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