Eugene Davidson’s final book, The Narrow Path of Freedom and Other Essays,
examines historical instances of man’s inhumanity to man, providing poignant insight that we can profit from as we contemplate an ongoing battle against terrorism. A superb essayist, Davidson here displays an extraordinary range. Long a student of international relations, he writes of the Nuremberg trials after World War II and, as the book’s title indicates, of the narrow path of freedom that the democracies have had to travel during the last half century. The path allowed little stumbling, lest they would fall into the errors that disgraced the dictatorships. Davidson wears his wisdom lightly, delighting a reader with touches of humor and with wry, startlingly appropriate comparisons.
A second set of essays examines the idea of history as it has survived into our present time, including what Davidson describes as the “thin coat of higher learning” in a commencement address in which he advises young men and women to listen to dissent and make up their own minds. As Davidson says, “The war of ideas is far from over, and every coming generation will have to bear its own share of the burden in the endless struggle for the survival of freedom.”
Last is a group of reminiscent essays. One recounts a friendship with the historian Charles A. Beard, who proposed to the young Davidson that he call him Uncle Charlie. In another Davidson plumbs the personality of a major figure of the Nazi era, Albert Speer. He also discusses the pathetic and perhaps demented Ezra Pound, whose genius as a poet may have been questionable but whose ability to survive was remarkable.
The Narrow Path of Freedom and Other Essays is a valuable guide for all who try to keep the idea of freedom alive. The pieces in it are nothing less than a triumph—historical, literary, philosophical. By confronting the idea of history—what the past should mean—Davidson gives us a book that will last well into our already turbulent new century.