Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Meets poet W.H. Auden

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Meets poet W.H. Auden

Correspondence with W.H. Auden

December 19th, [1941?]
1223 Pontiac Street
Ann Arbor

Dear Mrs. Niehbur Niebuhr,

Thanks etc so for your long letter, though you sound very overdone. I hope that that Christian Dynamo Reinhold will give you two or three days rest at Christmas, or rather that you will very firmly put to bed and keep him there. How I laughed over your story about not getting anything DONE. I'm sure if Lutherans had confessions, his would say "Now, my son, as a penance for being an ecclesiastical Orson Welles, you shall sit in an arm-chair for 48 hours with NO RADIO and twiddle your thumbs." [In Purgatory while you and I are picking Oakum, he will be condemned to a rocking-chair.]

After the shock of the first twenty-four hours, the war has fallen back into being part of the natural climate, and till I'm wanted for anything, I can shall carry on with my daily routine. As it has to come, I suppose it couldn't have come in a better way as far as American opinion is concerned, though it makes me a little sad to realize there is more indignation over the Japs than the Germans, because they are little and yellow. The Hearst editorial the next day in the Detroit Times might have been written by Goebbels. It even mentioned Castor Oil. The news from Malaga is grim, isn't it? But enough of that: I think one ought to make a rule with oneself never to talk about the war except when there is something practical to be done.

I'm plugging slowly away at my Christmas Oratio which will be immensely long, and very theological. Vacation begins today and I leave at noon (it is now 8.00 am) for California. Some of my students seem to be coming along nicely; There are many theories about me. One party believes that I am a starry-eyed idealist, another that I am a crass materialist. One professor who is a fanatical Aristotelian met another professor in the corridor and said: "I don't like to say anything malicious about another human being, but I hear Auden is a Platonist."

The class is very shocked at the moment because I've told them that for their exam at the end of the semester all they have to do is learn six cantos of the Divine Comedy by heart and write them out. They think it can't be done, so I've promised them that if I can't learn the whole assignment in the train between Chicago and Los Angeles, I'll reduce it.

Have you and Reinhold found that American students are not used to having their work criticized severely? They seem to imagine that it can only proceed from a personal dislike. Now when WE were undergraduates ……

By the by, have you ever read Arthur Waley's The Way and its Power, a translation of the Quietist Tao Tê Ching? It has some wonderful stuff in it.

I must stop and start packing and distributing the leavings of the Ice-box to neighbours.

Much love to you, Reinhold, and the Family and a happy "Ivory Tower" (God, how I hate that term) Christmas.


Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.