Buried Treasure

By Menand, Louis | The New Yorker, January 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Buried Treasure


Menand, Louis, The New Yorker


John Maynard Keynes died on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1946. He was only sixty-two. His mind had always been indomitable--"He never dimmed his headlights," Kenneth Clark, the art historian, once complained--but his body was easily subdued. He was susceptible to illness all his life, and in 1937 he was found to have bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves, which, in the days before antibiotics, was incurable. The disease made him prone to exhaustion and collapse, and he had to take precautions to avoid straining his heart. Flying was especially dangerous. But in 1940 he accepted an unpaid position as an adviser to the British Treasury. In that capacity, he typically worked ten-hour days, and he made six trips to the United States--four during wartime--to negotiate for the British. When he died, his colleague Lionel Robbins, who had directed the Economic Section of Churchill's War Cabinet, wrote to Keynes's widow that "Maynard had given his life for his country, as surely as if he had fallen on the field of battle."

The third volume of Robert Skidelsky's biography, "John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom" (Viking; $34.95), covers the last nine years of Keynes's life. Skidelsky began working on the book more than twenty years ago--the first volume, subtitled "Hopes Betrayed," appeared in 1983, the second, "The Economist as Savior," in 1992. He needs more than five hundred pages to get through the final years; the complete work is more than fifteen hundred pages.

For a man who was basically an academic intellectual, a Cambridge University don, Keynes had a colorful life, partly because he lived with and among artists and writers, and partly because his work was intimately connected with the three major events of his time and place: the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. His attack on the Treaty of Versailles, "The Economic Consequences of the Peace," published in 1919, was an international best-seller, and essentially predicted the economic collapse of Weimar Germany and the rise of the Third Reich. His major work in economics, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money," which appeared in 1936, became the standard analysis of the Depression and the foundation of modern economic policy and macroeconomic theory. He helped shape Britain's financial relations with the United States in the period of Lend-Lease and afterward, and his leadership at the Bretton Woods conference, in 1944, helped create the postwar international monetary system--specifically, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Still, fifteen hundred pages is in the superheavyweight category. Per-page marginal utility, it's true, is unusually high. At some point, Skidelsky must have decided that since his story, however else it turned out, was not going to be short, he might as well analyze everything. And he does, with an intelligence and a command that are very impressive, and that can also, like his subject's, be a little daunting. Writing was one of Keynes's special gifts. So was speaking. His powers of expression made him arrogant: he knew that he could outtalk and outsmart anyone in the room (as Kenneth Clark evidently learned the hard way). But those powers were what gave him his influence on people and events. His reasoning seemed so much clearer than everyone else's, and he could keep on reasoning long after other people had lapsed into platitude and incoherence. He was indefatigably lucid. Skidelsky is a good writer, but he is not Keynes, and some readers may find his exegeses of economic ideas and the ins and outs of lengthy policy debates technical, dense, and assumptive.

On the other hand, there is a big compensation. "If this biography has rescued Keynes from the economists, and placed him in the world of history where he properly belongs," Skidelsky says in the introduction to the final volume, "it will have achieved its aim." By "the world of history," he doesn't mean only the political and economic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the Depression and the wars. …

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