A Man Of Letters, by Thomas Sowell
Reading someone’s mail is always a dicey proposition. Sometimes the letters that we write and receive require a bit of context, and we may read them and interpret them without a great deal of insight if we are in the habit of reading letters without communicating back to the author about matters. As might be expected, this particular book is one that includes a wide variety of correspondence, much of which has found its way into various books by the author that I have read in one form or another. In reading Sowell’s letters, one gets a sense of who he is as a man, someone who has a high regard for truth and independence, someone who can deal graciously with those who disagree with him but is rather uncompromising when it comes to his worldview, and someone who has epic dramas running through decades, and someone who can keep up an excellent correspondence. These letters are certainly a pleasure to read and one can get a lot out of them, and the fact that they come with commentary by the author as well that puts these letters in context is certainly a worthwhile aspect of this book as well.
The book itself is about 350 pages and covers letters from the 1960’s to the 2000’s. Over the course of time we see Sowell go from a Marxist young man who is looking for a teaching job that will not require him to go soft on students who are not prepared for economics in all of its challenges. He writes recommendation letters, engages in a long romance and then uncertain flirtation with “Audrey,” a woman from a privileged black family whose political journey is the opposite of the author’s, and seeks to find an honored place in the world where he can write and research, all while he deals with marriage drama, a son who talks late, and political matters related to his writing and research. This only continues as the decades go on as he ably defends conservative ideals, befriends Clarence Thomas, and seeks to correct the biases and misinterpretations he is viewed, discusses aging and deals with the death of friends and family. Most of the letters are excerpts but they show Sowell as a very matter-of-fact sort of person whose analytical interests and abilities are supplemented by a strong sense of decency and humanity, but who above all has a high regard for the practical outcome of actions.
And it is that last point that comes through loud and clear in the many discussions that these letters contain. The author is not so much interested in good intentions as he is in the practical results of actions taken by people and governments. Indeed, one can find this trait even when he was a self-professed leftist who nonetheless sought empirical rigor in his university studies. And it is that empirical focus that likely led to his conversion from leftist thinking to the conservative approach for which he is well known and often applauded, at least by those who understand it. One can see in the author’s letters the sort of thinking that led the author to be an immensely prolific writer, because he is always thinking of implications and always seeing new avenues to research, and always interested in mastering and helping others master the fundamental facts that allow for worthwhile insights. His criticism of the resentment factories of many humanities departments that focus on identity politics as well as his insights about affirmative action and the spinelessness of many university faculty is spot on. This is a book that gives the reader a lot of insight into Sowell’s thinking and how it developed over the course of a lifetime, and it makes for deeply interesting reading.