The American intellectual community suffered a great loss last week, when John P. Diggins died suddenly from complications from colon cancer. Jack’s death came as a shock to many of his friends and colleagues, to whom he never mentioned his illness.
Jack Diggins was a unique figure in our polarized times. He was intellectually and politically engaged. Yet unlike so many, it was impossible to predict what he would say and where he would come down on so many issues. He could be sharp in his criticism when he disagreed with someone, leveling a blast that stung. Yet he would quickly apologize, and take another longer and more sober look before reaching final judgment.
Jack’s interests were widespread. His first book was a study of the impact in America of Mussolini and Italian fascist doctrine. After that, he turned to examine the a group of major American intellectuals who moved from Communism to the new post-war conservatism espoused by William F. Buckley. Later he wrote books on American pragmatism as well a study of Abraham Lincoln’s moral and political views. All of his works had implications for understanding the America of his own time and place.
In his recent book on Ronald Reagan, Jack surprised many by reevaluating Reagan as a true liberal who sought peace with the Soviets. Many Reagan supporters simply could not take his argument seriously. His sympathetic portrait of Reagan also confused liberals who despised Reagan and who were disappointed with Jack whom they saw as one of their own. When he told Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. that he was writing a book reevaluating Reagan and that he would say positive things about him, Schlesinger responded: “Please don’t make him look too good.” Despite his unique approach to Reagan and their disagreement with him, the conservative think tanks in Washington DC all vied to have Jack appear before them to talk about his take on Reagan.
A man who was hard to pinpoint, Jack wrote scathing critiques on Marxists and men of the Left like Eric Hobsbawm and Eric Foner for The National Interest, and blasts at the neo-conservatives whom he fiercely opposed for The American Prospect. He simply could not be pigeon-holed. One can read and learn from all these essays, and appreciate Diggins’ perspective and the very unique criticism he levied, despite disagreeing with much of his analysis.
There were few intellectuals of his caliber, who stood firmly on independent ground and had the fortitude to suffer the antagonism of those who were firmly in one camp or the other. He will be sorely missed.