Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library Acquires Papers of Peter Viereck, Poet, Historian, and Political Theorist

NEW YORK, September 28, 2006 Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library has acquired a large collection of manuscripts, typescripts, correspondence, and photographs from the estate of Peter Viereck (1916–2006), the historian and Pulitzer prize-winning poet whose work in political theory helped launch the modern conservative movement in the United States.


Viereck was a wide-ranging intellectual who won Guggenheim Fellowships in both poetry and history, and whose papers include correspondence with Daniel Boorstin, Joseph Brodsky, Sigmund Freud, W. V. O. Quine, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., George Bernard Shaw, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and William Carlos Williams. A professor of Russian and European history at Mount Holyoke College for nearly fifty years, Viereck wrote prolifically on politics and intellectual history, and published over a dozen collections of poetry, most recently Door: Poems (2005). Viereck is often credited with launching and naming the modern conservative intellectual movement in the late 1940s, although he criticized its subsequent direction and deplored Senator Joseph McCarthy for betraying authentic conservative values.

“Peter Viereck was one of the most original political thinkers in postwar America, as well as an accomplished poet, critic, and historian,” said Casey Blake, professor of History at Columbia University. “As a leading figure in the creation of the modern conservative movement, he had the courage to challenge American conservatives when they subordinated the defense of his country’s cultural, religious, and constitutional traditions to narrow partisan crusades. Viereck’s engagement with the great controversies of his day—the award of the Bollingen poetry prize to Ezra Pound, the debate over McCarthyism, the launching of National Review, among many others—will make his papers a major resource for scholars of modern American politics, ideas, and literature.”

In addition to the papers of Peter Viereck, the archive contains a significant portion of the literary archive of his father, George Sylvester Viereck (1884–1962), including novels, essays, drama, autobiography, and legal papers. Born in Germany, the elder Viereck played a prominent role in the literary and cultural scene of early twentieth-century America, inspiring and serving as the first secretary of the Poetry Society of America. As a free-lance writer for publications including The Saturday Evening Post, George Sylvester Viereck interviewed many leading figures, including Albert Einstein and Adolph Hitler, and was a friend of Sigmund Freud. During World War II, the elder Viereck’s standing was destroyed by his early support for Nazi Germany as a paid propagandist. He was arrested and jailed for five years as an unregistered agent of Germany, although espionage charges against him were ultimately dropped. During his imprisonment, his younger son died in U.S. military service at Anzio, deepening George Sylvester Viereck’s rift with his elder son Peter, who served as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst during the war. Peter Viereck had already diagnosed the evils of Nazi Germany in his book Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler, begun at Harvard in 1936 and first published three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1949, Peter Viereck won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book of poems, Terror and Decorum and also published Conservatism Revisted: The Revolt Against Revolt, 1815–1949, the appearance of which sparked a reevaluation of conservatism in an era of liberal consensus. Viereck’s poetry combines serious philosophical and metaphysical concerns with lyrical, rhyming, and often humorous, formal structure, and is often compared to the work of W. H. Auden and that of Viereck’s friend and colleague, Joseph Brodsky. While Viereck’s verse has received sparse critical attention in recent years, it was highly regarded by notable contemporaries such as Robert Creeley, James Dickey, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Kenneth Rexroth.

“Peter Viereck was among our few genuinely independent literary and scholarly illuminati,“ said Daniel Weissbort, co-founder with Ted Hughes of Modern Poetry in Translation and emeritus professor of English at the University of Iowa. “As a poet and a translator, his work is based not only on a profound historical understanding but also on exacting linguistic engagement with source texts. The archive of his papers at Columbia will be invaluable resource for scholars and writers.“

While Viereck’s “Applewood cycle,“ published as the book-length poem, Archer in the Marrow, occupied twenty years of his life, Viereck remained a prolific writer of both poetry and political analysis. The New Yorker published a profile of Viereck’s political trajectory in the fall of 2005, and in his last three years of life, Viereck produced seven books, including a new volume of poetry and several expanded editions of earlier historical works. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Viereck as a poet and as a pivotal political thinker.

“Peter Viereck devoted his life to presenting alternatives to reigning ideologies, finding a midway between leftist politics that cast away foundational truths in pursuit of unrealistic utopias, and intellectuals on the right who clung to rigid orthodoxies,” said Lisa Szefel, lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University who is writing a biography of Viereck, her former teacher at Mount Holyoke. “Viereck articulated a truly ‘compassionate conservatism’ that combined the best of liberal social reform with foundational conservative values. For those interested in tracing the genealogy of contemporary political and cultural categories, Viereck’s manuscripts will cast into bold relief the road not taken.”

The Columbia University Libraries acquired the archive from the Viereck family earlier this year. The archive comprises over 200 linear feet of material, much of which is manuscript or corrected typescript of Peter Viereck’s verse and prose drafts and translations, including thousands of pages of unpublished material. The archive also contains manuscripts by George Bernard Shaw, Kaiser Wilhelm II (to whom the Viereck family may be related), and Edmund Wilson, as well as background research for Peter Viereck’s books, news clippings, personal photographs, and audio tapes.

When organized and processed, the Viereck archive will be available for use. For further information, call the RBML at 212-854-5153.

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