Originally published in the January 2018 issue of First Things.
Milosz: A Biography
by Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap, 544 pages, $35
The impression left in the mind of an American reader, after he finishes Andrzej Franaszek’s exhaustive new biography of Czesław Miłosz, is how absurd it is that this man was ever considered a political sage. A great poet, yes. A generous translator of other Polish poets, absolutely. His tireless efforts to make American poetry less provincial by lending his famous name to anthologies of world poetry, not just European but Asian and Latin American, remain underappreciated to this day. But his reputation as a Cold War dissident was accidental and was neither deserved nor welcomed by the poet himself.
Miłosz made only one venture into the world of politics, and that under the oddest of circumstances. The Captive Mind (1953) was written during an in-between period for Miłosz, after he defected from Poland but before the American government had decided to grant him a visa. Denunciations of Miłosz by earlier Polish émigrés had flooded the State Department, leaving the Americans reluctant to help such an unpopular man who, after all, had worked for Poland’s Communist government until the day before yesterday. The Captive Mind therefore had something of the character of an audition.