Billington, James H(adley) 1929-
BILLINGTON, James H(adley) 1929-
Born June 1, 1929, in Bryn Mawr, PA; son of Nelson (an insurance broker) and Jane (an editor; maiden name, Coolbaugh) Billington; married Marjorie Anne Brennan, June 22, 1957; children: Susan Billington Harper, Anne Billington Fischer, James Hadley, Thomas Keator. Education: Princeton University, B.A., 1950; Balliol College, Oxford, Ph.D., 1953. Politics: Conservative.
Home—1520 Highwood Dr., Arlington, VA 22207. Office—Library of Congress, Office of the Librarian, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, DC 20540-1000.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, 1957-58, assistant professor of history, 1958-61, fellow of Russian Research Center, 1958-59; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, associate professor, 1961-64, professor of history, 1964-73; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, director, 1973-87; Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Librarian of Congress, 1987—. Writer. Guest professor at schools and institutions in U.S.S.R., including universities of Leningrad and Moscow and Institute of History; visiting research professor at schools in U.S.S.R. and France. Host of Humanities Film Forum (television series), Network for Public Broadcasting, 1973-74. Consultant on East-West relations to Chase Manhattan Bank, 1971-73; Fulbright-Hays Foreign Scholarships, board member, 1971-76, chair, 1971-73; vice chair of Atlantic Council's Working Group on the Successor Generation, 1982-86; consultant to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Scholar-in-residence at Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1974, 1975, and 1977. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-56; became first lieutenant.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (director, 1968-71), American Philosophical Society, American Antiquarian Society, Council on Foreign Relations, Phi Beta Kappa, Century Club (New York, NY).
Rhodes scholar, 1950-53; honorary doctorates from numerous colleges, including Lafayette College, 1981, LeMoyne College, 1982, Rhode Island College, 1982, Catholic University of America, 1983, Furman University, 1986, New York University, 1987, University of Pittsburgh, 1988, Ball State University, 1988, George Washington University, 1990, and Virginia Theological Seminary, 1990; Gwangwa Medal (Korea), 1991; Woodrow Wilson Award, Princeton University, 1992; Knight Commander's Cross of Order of Merit (Federal Republic of Germany), 1996; named chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters (France); Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow at University of Helsinki.
Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1958.
(Author of introduction) The Horizon Book of the Arts of Russia, American Heritage Publishing (New York, NY), 1970.
Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Virtue, Public and Private, edited with a foreword by Richard John Neuhaus, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1986.
Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope: Moscow, August 1991, Free Press (New York, NY), 1992.
The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration, and Achievement in Russian Culture, TV Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor to books and periodicals.
Prior to his appointment as the thirteenth Librarian of Congress, writer, educator, and historian James H. Billington was best known for his expertise in the field of Russian history and culture. A professor of history for more than fifteen years at Harvard and Princeton universities, he directed the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., before succeeding Daniel J. Boorstin as head of the U.S. Library of Congress. The five-thousand-employee library houses nearly ninety million books and papers, making it the nation's largest public archive. Billington's responsibilities include the preservation of the library's vast existing collection and the acquisition of valuable additional works. During his years as librarian of Congress, Billington has distinguished himself as an innovative administrator, with particular success in the refinement of various technological and managerial aspects of the library's operations. According to Felicity Barringer in the New York Times, the scholar brought "glitter to an institution known largely for its grandeur."
Billington published his first book, Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism, in 1958 while teaching history at Harvard University. A biography of Russian social critic and populist movement leader Nikolay Mikhailovsky, the work was hailed as a cogent study of an entire era in Russian history. Spectator reviewer E. M. Arden proclaimed that few works on "intellectual and political movements and prominent individuals of the latter half of the nineteenth century in Russia… [combine] scholarship and lucidity in such a readable fashion as Dr. Billington's."
The 1966 publication of The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture reaffirmed Billington's reputation as a leading Russian scholar. An impressive and accessible examination of the growth of Russian culture, thought, and politics, The Icon and the Axe covers more than one thousand years of Russian history and is generally regarded as a masterpiece of modern nonfiction writing. In the book Billington advances the notion that a combination of historical, religious, and environmental factors—including the influence of Jewish and Western European peoples—affected the course of Russia's cultural development. New York Times Book Review contributor Andrew Field was impressed with Billington's overall view of cultural genesis from a historic perspective, noting for example Billington's point that the proliferation of icon painting and worship in Russia in the thirteenth century coincided with a particularly tumultuous period in the region's political history. According to Billington, icons may have "provided an image of higher authority that helped compensate for the diminished stature of temporal princes."
Leonard Schapiro, writing in the New Yorker, called Billington "a sensitive historian" and considered The Icon and the Axe "a highly individual and personal reflection" of Russian culture as "poised between saintly and the demonic, between the visionary and the earthly." The critic added that "it is precisely through bold generalizations such as this one, offered by one man's magisterial survey of the past, that intellectual history comes alive."
The title of Billington's next work, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, is rooted in the dual nature of fire as a conventional symbol of both inspiration and destruction. Melvin J. Lasky, writing in Washington Post Book World, noted that the title derived from a line in The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel about the disintegration of social order in the face of violent radicalism: In the work, as fire sweeps through a provincial town, a voice cries, "The fire is in the minds of men—not in the roofs of buildings." Published in 1980, Billington's nearly seven-hundred-page volume Fire in the Minds of Men spans five continents and almost two centuries, exploring the origin and development of "a revolutionary faith"—a unified belief in and call for a new order—throughout the world. The author traces the dawn of the modern revolutionary tradition to late eighteenth-century France. According to Billington, a pervasive "spiritual thirst" gave rise to this new faith, instilling in early revolutionaries the belief that a vital renaissance would follow the vanquishing of traditional order.
While Billington's meticulous research, attention to detail, and evocative, lyrical prose were lauded unequivocally by critics, several reviewers were dissatisfied with the analytical scope of Fire in the Minds of Men. The book is generally considered more significant as a record of revolutionary participants and their actions over the past two hundred years than as a sustained examination of the underlying causes of revolution. In an article for the New Yorker, Naomi Bliven decried the author's failure to consider the ramifications—for modern societies—of past revolutionary movements: "Despite all his digging, [Billington] has uncovered very little that is of use to Americans in our present perplexities. We still need to learn… how people of different origins can live peacefully and equitably side by side." New York Times Book Review contributor Marshall Berman expressed a similar opinion, contending that Billington's scant treatment of recent radical movements "keeps him from giving his book the dramatic resolution and intellectual coherence it deserves." Still, Berman allowed, " Fire in the Minds of Men is a brilliant and fascinating book."
In 1999 Billington published The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration, and Achievement in Russian Culture, a companion book to a three-part television series of the same name that he wrote and narrated for the Public Broadcasting Service. The series, which aired in June of 1998, examined the history, present, and possible future of Russia, as seen through its arts and culture. In Foreign Affairs, Robert Legvold praised Billington's writing style for its "simple elegance," and in the Wilson Quarterly, Elise Kimmerling praised the volume as "a personal book, conversational in tone and enlivened by [Billington's] reminiscences."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Billington, James H., The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, Knopf (New York, NY), 1966.
Foreign Affairs, winter, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 211; May, 1999, review of The Face of Russia, p. 147.
Guardian, September 6, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 20.
Journal of the History of Ideas, October, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 705.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1999, review of The Face of Russia, p. 4.
Newsweek, February 16, 1981.
New Yorker, January 12, 1981.
New York Times, August 8, 1980; May 26, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1966; September 14, 1980; August 23, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 43.
Reference Services Review, January, 1996, review of Russia Transformed, p. 82.
Spectator, February 21, 1958.
Times Literary Supplement, April 25, 1958; November 14, 1980; July 9, 1993, review of Russia Transformed, p. 4.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1999, review of Fire in the Minds of Men, p. 71.
Washington Post, July 1, 1998, review of The Face of Russia, p. D1.
Washington Post Book World, August 31, 1980; August 9, 1992, review of Russia Transformed, p. 1.
Wilson Quarterly, winter, 1999, review of The Face of Russia, p. 99.*