Albert Hirschman and Alice Monroe

Albert Hirschman and Alice Munro


Howard Adelman

My son, Jeremy Adelman’s new book, an edited collection of essays by Albert Hirschman, (The Essential Hirschman) has just appeared (Princeton University Press). Alice Munro just won the Nobel prize for literature. The two writers have a great deal in common even though Hirschman’s beat was the marketplace and civic and political life writ large while Munro’s habitus was the small town and the intricacies of lives writ small.

Both found what Jeremy described in his introduction as “beauty in the diminutive”, but also tension and pain, acts of cowardice and courage. Both revered the imagination, Alice Munro the literary imagination and Albert Hirschman the intellectual imagination, as the portal for “finding seams in the most impregnable structures”. My daughter, Rachel, in her biblical writings, calls these interstices, the gaps that open up new possibilities in the operation of moral, legal and social norms and allow established certainties to be challenged. Just as Tamar in Genesis disguises herself as a whore at a crossroads where she seduces her father-in-law, Judah, and bears him two children, such normally unimaginable actions and deeds use these gaps to allow the cunning of reason to emerge both in our personal lives and our lives on the world stage.

Both writers have always been concerned with the complexity of the human condition and both bring those complexities out by looking at the world when crossing points, gates and junctions are traversed whether in political, economic and emotional lives or the intricacies of our personal lives. The transformation is made possible by the enchantment and the art of writing, mainly essays by Albert Hirschman and short stories by Alice Munro that combine penetrating wit, unforgettable metaphors, an elegance and economy of style and brilliant insights and analyses to create unique voices. Experience and acute observation were the tools of their trade. They are world masters of underappreciated literary forms using brevity itself to pull back the veil of the personal and write parables of horror and hope.

Munro, the artist committed to the small canvas, did not so much paint with words as John Updike did or allow us to hear as Philip Roth did, but went further and allowed us to feel and smell the paint and hear the music in the sounds of words as the world of senses became palpable in a way that went beyond the visual and the oral to create a subversive elusive beauty that always undermined repressive self-denial and stoical determination. As in Hirschman, the writing is always informed by a profound compassion so it is no surprise to read (or hear) that Gladwell (as well as many others) cried when he finished reading Jeremy’s biography of Hirschman.

Both Hirschman and Munro have been modest people and modest writers who avoided bombast and pomposity, grand theories and grandiose epics. This does not mean they lacked opponents. Hirschmann was out to slay the grand dragons of both communist and liberal theory with their overarching visions of how to propel change. Alice Munro, though pigeonholed by Margaret Atwood and Graham Gibson as one of the representatives of the school of Southern Ontario Gothic along with such different writers as Timothy Findley, James Reaney, Robertson Davies, Jane Urquhart and Marian Engel, in fact always managed to escape the confines of categorization. Both writers wrote from a position that was always somewhat off kilter, from an angular vision that avoided an Aristotelian balanced approach to truth. Both wrote in a seemingly effortless straightforwardness manner where a deeper complexity always remained to be encountered on re-reading. Both communicated a powerful intensity arising from the mundane and the ordinary.

Both used words with great economy, Munro to share the intimate knowledge of her brilliantly realized strangely compelling characters, Hirschman to gain insight into vast economic, social and political changes underway. Both transform the mundane into the marvellous, converting strange but brutal worlds that are so common and recognizable into the realm of wonder and possibilities. Events take surprising turns, but instead of being thrown off balance by those twists, each exhibits supreme poise and confidence. Mysteries are dealt with using understatement that hides the magic of the creativity.

Both were concerned with the theme of escape or what Hirschman called “exit”. That exit or escape was made necessary by unleashed passions, coming from the larger political processes of ideology and movements in Hirschman’s world and from the inner desires of Munro’s mesmerizing female characters. In each case, the desire is ungovernable and wrecks havoc on the world. However, in Hirschman’s world, there may be unintended consequences even though the results are overwhelmingly destructive. In the case of Alice Munro, a gleam, a promise and a liberating freedom is often left as a residue. Both writers were always wedded to both imagining (and bringing about) new possibilities. As Jeremy put it, “what appears as immutable, stubborn, and impervious to change could become a source of options”.

I will resume my writing on Hirschman by focusing on an essay each day from Jeremy’s new book interwoven with one of Hirschman’s larger books and comments on another chapter of Jeremy’s biography of Hirschman.