The Life & Legend of E.H. Harriman

By Maury Klein | Go to book overview
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Prologue: Mr. Kennan Writes a Biography

The trend of my rather eventful but comparatively unimportant life was determined, mainly, by the fact that my father was born with a latent taste and a decided aptitude for applied science, and was then trained and educated as a school-teacher and a lawyer.

George Kennan, Autobiography

If in the bleak winter of 1913–14 George Kennan had paused to draw a balance sheet of his life, he would have found cause for the anxiety that gnawed at him. To all appearances he had enjoyed great success in his mixed career as explorer and journalist. At sixty-nine he was an elder statesman in the literary, diplomatic, and scientific circles that had been his home for three decades. Presidents and editors alike had long considered him the foremost American authority on Russia and sought his views on every turn of that country's erratic political wheel. 1

“George Kennan,” said an admiring friend, “was a peculiarly lovable man and a remarkably attractive one.” Tall and gaunt with thick brows and a formidable mustache beneath his bald head, Kennan still stood ramrod straight as an old man. His dark, fierce eyes were alert and restless like those of an eagle scouting prey, and his intellect covered no less ground in its quest for nourishment. Since the 1860s he had roamed the globe searching out mysteries and recording them with remarkable clarity and objectivity. 2

From middle-class beginnings in Norwalk, Ohio, where he caught his father's passion for the telegraph (his mother was related to Samuel F. B. Morse), Kennan had first ventured out into the world at seventeen as a substitute operator in a Cleveland office of Western Union. Two years later he applied for a position with the Western Union Extension, which was about to string wire across Alaska and Siberia. Thus began his lifelong love affair with Russia. He arrived at Petropavlosk in August 1865 and remained in Russia nearly three years, roaming across as much of the country as he could while doing his work. 3

In January 1860, nine months after his return, Kennan produced his article and gave his first lecture. By the spring of 1870 he had delivered more than sixty


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