“Not a book so much as it is an alumni-magazine profile gone horribly, horribly wrong”

by Kieran Healy on March 30, 2006

“Scott McLemee”:http://www.mclemee.com/id4.html is a superb critic, and one of the things that makes him good is that he is generous. He can get something interesting out of not very interesting books, and he doesn’t go out of his way to be snarky. But when he feels like filleting something, “his knife is very sharp”:http://www.mclemee.com/id165.html.

THE MAN ON WHOM NOTHING WAS LOST: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen. Houghton Mifflin, 354 pp.

… Charles Hill — a former Foreign Service officer who served in important positions under Henry Kissinger and George Schultz – has for a few years now taught a class at Yale University called Grand Strategy. Young aspirants to the diplomatic corps flock to it. … Molly Worthen, a recent Yale graduate, was one of Hill’s junior illuminati, and her book The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost is an authorized biography of the great man. … The result is not a book so much as it is an alumni-magazine profile gone horribly, horribly wrong. … Hill comes across as a single-minded careerist who did not notice his wife’s alcoholism until she mentioned it during the final days of their marriage. If not for the element of hero worship pervading the book, one might suspect an element of sarcasm in Worthen’s title … something is missing from Worthen’s gale-force proclamations of wonder … There is nothing resembling a substantial idea in the entire book. Worthen presents Hill as a neoconservative guru. But her portrait is that of a mind bearing less resemblance to the political philosopher Leo Strauss than a walking edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. … the author never forgets herself entirely. Or at all, really. … She also indulges in a considerable amount of “my generation” babble: “We sit in coffee shops and complain about the doldrums of ‘real jobs,’ the stress of having to commit to a career that won’t ever let out for the summer,” etc.

This is not a biography, but a study in self-absorption by proxy. The publisher ought to be ashamed. The manuscript should have been left in a drawer, where it might embarrass the author 10 years from now, and in private.




lemuel pitkin 03.30.06 at 1:00 pm

Banalities pass as insights. “This is not to say,” she writes at one point, “that Charlie does not fear for the fate of human character.” (Gosh, big guy, we do appreciate your concern and will all try to do better.)

Sweet baby Jesus, that smarts.


Gary Farber 03.30.06 at 1:03 pm

Is something on the CT software broken?; I tried to reply to a comment made yesterday here, which I’m getting hits on my logs from, but there seems to be no comment box left. This is annoying. When someone says something to me, I’d like to reply. Is this a glitch? A problem on my browser?


Kieran Healy 03.30.06 at 1:21 pm

Is something on the CT software broken?

Sorry about that. Comments threads are automatically closed after a week, as a defense againse spambots. In most cases discussion has ended by then. Low-volume threads lasting more than a few days aren’t common, though of course the one you point to has turned out to be an exception. You can still send a trackback ping to the thread, if you like.


Donald Johnson 03.30.06 at 1:34 pm

That book was reviewed more favorably in the NYT a few weeks ago, not in the Book Review itself, but in the Arts section. The impression I had was that the author originally worshipped Hill and slowly came to her senses and the result was a book that made him look like a pompous fool. So I thought the book was meant to be an expose. (How do you spell that last word? Not the way I did.)


Donald Johnson 03.30.06 at 1:38 pm

Hmm. I just read Scott’s piece. If Scott is right, the NYT reviewer must have been projecting his or her own opinions onto the author.

In either case, Hill still sounds like a pompous fool.


josh 03.30.06 at 5:11 pm

There actually WAS an alumni magazine article, by Worthen, based on (though not, I think, actually taken from) the book, and it did include a certain amount of misgiving/ambivalence about Hill — about the cultish attitude of students to him, and of the authoritarian element in his teaching style. So I don’t think the NYT reviewer was projecting; not having read the book, I don’t know if Scott McLemee is being fair or not, but the article at least seemed less uncritical than he makes the book out to be.
And Hill may sound like a pompous fool, but he doesn’t come across that way in the classroom, as I can attest (or at least he didn’t 7 years ago; this was in his pre-‘Grand Strategy’ days, though, so I’m not sure how much my own experiences conform to more recent reality). He’s a smart guy, and a good teacher, and a very good challenge for a complacently liberal, intellectually assured, and generally self-satisfied college freshman to come up against.


jacob 03.30.06 at 6:10 pm

I understood the Alumni Magazine piece to be “adapted from” the book. Which was adapted from her senior thesis.

The YAM piece is here: http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/current/charleshill.html


maidhc 03.31.06 at 3:17 am

The Man on whom Nothing was Lost“?

It sounds like one of those double-edged comments—along the lines of what Disraeli used to reply to people who sent him their books: “Thank you for your book. I shall lose no time in reading it.”

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