Venturing from Washington, DC to Earlysville, Virginia on a Saturday morning to interview Mark Helprin was nearly torture. Forced to contend with throngs of marathon runners blocking streets and exits in the District of Columbia and then multiple crashes on the Beltway, I began to wonder if leaving Washington that day was even possible. I arrived two hours late, stumbling into the beautiful countryside of Virginia, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Mountains. But all frustration ceased when Mark and his lovely wife, Lisa, opened their home to me. In excusing my tardiness, Helprin said, “Richard, it can be difficult getting out of Washington.” Indeed.
Helprin has made clear over the years that he stands within no tightly defined orthodoxy, a fact evident in both his fiction and political writing. But his idiosyncratic character also finds expression in the Helprins’ kitchen, nearly half of which is encased in glass. “I was raised by a dog, you might call me Mowgli,” Mark deadpanned as we walked into the kitchen.
He grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York with a thousand acres of land adjoining his family’s property. Although his family didn’t own the land, Mark freely roamed it with his dog. Human friends were rare, but the open land and his dog were always there. Mark developed a discerning sense of smell from their daily and prolonged excursions into the wild. Even today, scents overwhelm his personal equilibrium. Consequently, he contains cooking aromas inside the glass case and then releases them externally. Things more serious than smells, however, disturb Mark, and he tells us why in various literary formats.
Mark Helprin’s novels, short stories, and national security writing have been my constant companion for many years. When the Bataclan Massacre was perpetrated by Islamic terrorists in Paris in 2015, I sought out Helprin immediately for analysis of what it would mean for France and for Europe. His fiction has frequently rejuvenated me, bolstering my own courage. Mark’s impressive corpus includes seven novels, three collections of short stories, and four children’s books. It richly displays what Russell Kirk might describe as an invitation to moral imagination. He has earned the National Jewish Book Award, the Prix de Rome, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and the 2010 Salvatori Prize in the American Founding.
Helprin’s Moral Imagination
To understand Helprin’s productive capacity, we might begin with a description of his study that opens to an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This cavernous room features thousands of books along an entire wall, almost two stories in height, and over fifty feet in length, with a rolling ladder attached to the bookcase. He locates books with an eyeglass. Two desks occupy either side of the room. From one, he writes in longhand after compiling research in a traditional way, placing hard copies of notes and documents in marked files on a rolling cart.
In one sense Helprin’s national security and political writing, which spans decades, is not entirely separate from his novels. Both sets of writings are composed in a substantive moral key. Helprin has provided counsel and written speeches for elected officials and presidential candidates. He has written for a range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, National Review, and Claremont Review of Books, among others. A Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, he concludes each issue of the Claremont Review of Books (CRB) with his “Parthian Shot” column.
After completing degrees in undergraduate and master’s programs in the College of the Arts and Sciences at Harvard, Helprin served in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli Army and Air Force. Here, he connected intimately with what has become one of the main themes of his national security analyses: survival. His service in the Israeli Army included a post on the Golan Heights in the 1970s, where, Helprin says, “They gave us a British service pistol from World War II. The firearm worked fine. It held five rounds. I was told, use four on the Syrians, but save one for yourself if you need it. If they take you alive, they’ll torture you for months, and then they’ll kill you.”
You might read Helprin for his knowledge of Russian tactical nuke strategy but also learn, in grand moral sweep, the price America will pay for its continued lack of preparation for the challenges that China, Russia, and Iran pose to our security. Helprin is no less resolute when it comes to the domestic perversion of our politics by Critical Race Theory, gender ideology, and identity politics. These aren’t policy disputes, Helprin repeatedly stresses, but basic questions of survival and meaning.
In his novels and short stories, we find protagonists engaged in war, romance, strenuous physical exertion, academic pursuits, commerce, and frequently tremendous losses in their lives. His characters display reason and faith, courage and love, humility and wisdom, prudence and daring, amid the harrowing circumstances they encounter. Comparisons have been drawn between Helprin’s novels and those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Wolfe, among others.
Helprin’s fiction does not glorify detached characters finding “meaning” by subverting or mocking the norms necessary to any flourishing society. His characters also have their own flaws and shortcomings, problems that they must confront and overcome. To the extent that Helprin’s characters challenge their societies, they do so to summon them from the shades and recover their valor and honor for the even deeper purposes of love.
In the novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, Harry Copeland, a former member of 82nd Airborne in World War II, simply refuses to make shake-down payments to the mafia which they have commanded he pay as an owner of a leather-goods business on their turf. All the local businesses have acceded to the mafia’s demands, and the cosa nostra has the police and local judges in their pocket. No one in authority stands between the mafia and their ultimate control of the city. Wouldn’t it just be easier to make the payments than resist? Yet resist Harry does. The mafia kills one of his trusted employees and badly beats a few others because he declines to pay. Harry concludes that this is where civilization is won or lost. He decides to reunite his former Army buddies and engage in a raid on the mafia compound, with the goal of inflicting maximum death on its members and taking out its leadership. Harry succeeds, but he pays with his life.
The Staff of the Lord
“Survival,” Helprin informs me, “is not something Americans like to think about.” But “I do, as a generational heir of the holocaust.” Some of his most provocative writing features characters from the Hasidic tradition. A short story titled “Perfection” features Roger Reveshze, who leaves his Hasidic community after losing faith in its rebbe because the teacher lied about eating non-kosher chocolate. Because of this lie, Roger no longer believes his rebbe can perform his central purpose: protecting the community from another holocaust. Roger, we come to learn, is a baal shem, one who can perform miracles.
A theme in Helprin’s fiction writing is the inter-penetrability of worlds as the ultimate answer to the ordeal of life. The world we inhabit and its regular and at times terrible order finds itself in communion with the miraculous, the outpouring of God’s grace into time. After listening to a New York Yankees game on the radio—an experience of amazement, if not joy, for Roger—he converses with the Hasidic community’s butcher about baseball and the Yenkiss. The game of baseball is entirely new to Roger, but he experiences the radio broadcast of the game as something of a revelation. The butcher’s description of baseball and the team’s stadium proves to be a divine calling for him. He believes that he must “champion the House of Ruth.” The butcher tells Roger that the House of Ruth is a place that glorifies God. Indeed, “Roger dreamed of the House of Ruth.”
The miracles Roger failed to find in the synagogue instead are worked in the baseball diamond, by him. The underaged and vastly undersized Roger will wield for the Yenkiss “the staff of the Lord” that was “passed to him in the fields … and it will shine in the light.” He saves the 1956 Yankees, achieving baseball perfection. His hitting generates automatic home runs, most of them leaving the surrounding environs. Roger’s defense is equally magical, with bullet throws from the outfield wall to home plate that travel on a perfect line. The entire team, league, city, and country are mesmerized by Roger. Where does such perfection come from? How is this possible?
After all, “By rights and the laws of physics he should not have been able, even had he connected with the ball, to have hit it beyond the diamond.” He “would not be able to throw the ball from home to second, much less leap twenty feet in the air (as he had done in the Sox game) and then get the ball off on a flat trajectory to burn into the catcher’s mitt at home plate before the thrower was back on the ground.”
Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mentle, and other members of the team inquire of Roger to tell them where his power originates. Roger tells them that he knows nothing about baseball, but a lock on a door and in a canal reveals that “Every force that exists is held in balance by a counterpart with which it must be united, and with which it is united, even if the connection be not apparent to us.” Put more succinctly, God’s “creation is perfect. It doesn’t seem so to us—we who suffer and die, who must live with sadness and terror—because we can’t see it in its entirety. If we could, we would see that it is in perfect balance.” Imperfection calls for perfection, if we look for it.
Some are aware of the compensation they receive in this world, while others are not. Roger has suffered greatly and learns that “God compensates even in this world.” A refugee of the holocaust, as a child, he lost his entire family. After describing in detail how he escaped death while his family and countless others were gunned down, he states, “That is the imperfection I have seen and all I want from the world is some indication or sign that, forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given.” His entire life is a restoration, a counterweight to the evil that killed his family. Here then is the source of his perfection.
If compensations are afforded to those who suffer, to those who face defeat, then at first glance, we might understand the inability of Americans to understand the increasing weakness of our national position. Only now does the chain seem to catch hold and threaten to pull us back into the horrors of human history, breaking us away from what has seemed an existence above such regular traumas. “We were separated by oceans from the worst of the fighting in World War I and II,” Helprin notes, and the “Oceans were once a greater barrier, but even then, during the Revolutionary War, the oceans didn’t protect us.” The British in “the War of 1812 threatened the existence of our country.” If “Germany and Japan had been able to consolidate their gains, then we would have faced the question of survival.” What is evident, he states, is that “the survival of a nation matters more than just navigating day to day.”
A Deteriorating National Situation
China, Russia, and Iran are constantly seeking to expand their influence, Helprin notes in a 2020 essay in the CRB titled “Speaking Louder While Carrying a Smaller Stick.” His pointed observation to me is that “China is building, we are cutting back on our Navy and Air Force, as our enemies build up.” It makes one wonder, he asks, “Who’s in charge?” One fact Helprin notes is that beginning in “1940 to 2000 average peacetime expenditures were 5.7% annually on defense. Now it averages 3%.” But more than top-line defense spending matters in this discussion, even though, with a determined opponent like China, a lack of inputs over time can’t help but be a sign of weakness.
In our discussion, Helprin details the ways China could threaten our sovereign independence. He offers as an example how easily in the nineteenth century American and British forces, who had token forces in China, “controlled everything that went into China.” How? “We had control of the sea.” And just like the Chinese then, he adds, “We, too, can be conquered.”
Helprin demonstrates at length how China is pressing, if not surpassing, us. The “Chinese navy is bigger than ours and will soon be twice the size of ours. They can surge production. Their shipyards are more abundant than ours.” And “What if we lose control of the seas? We have six shipyards; they have one hundred. At what point do the Chinese in such conditions take control of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans? We would then be in a similar position to the Chinese in the nineteenth century, and we would surrender to China’s control of shipping.”
China now effectively owns the South China Sea, Helprin concludes, and the reasons should be evident. Helprin recalls pointing this out nearly 10 years ago to Robert Work, Undersecretary of Defense in the Obama Administration, in a meeting of the American International Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “I told him, ‘The South China Sea is gone.’” Work replies, “No, it’s not gone.” Helprin says that he detailed for Work the basic facts of Chinese power in the region:
They can put nuclear submarines at the capes and spike the Panama Canal, cutting the Navy in half from the beginning of a conflict. Then, the force that would go through the Pacific would face chokepoints in the Pacific Archipelago where China would station conventional subs, surface vessels, and airpower, to prevent us from even getting into the South China Sea. The tyranny of distance would also be invoked, cutting off our supplies. Then, once we’re in the South China Sea, the surviving force would face intense fire in the Pacific, and then meet the biggest aircraft carrier in the world: mainland China. Chinese airpower, submarines, and their surface vessels would wipe us out in the South China Sea.
Helprin notes, “That was true then, it’s worse now. We don’t see things clearly.”
In soft-power terms, Helprin observes that “China economically and diplomatically is advancing. China has bases in South America. They are engaged in chessboard maneuvering so that they can win without fighting.” But they also support another strategy to weaken us, he notes. “They support various proxies realizing that you can demoralize a country that loses a proxy war. It creates opposition within that country. There is nothing so debilitating to a country as to lose a war, as we know.” In all of this, a superior Chinese Navy, encircling bases, a superior economy, proxy defeats, will lead many to “the conclusion that our country should stop arming, stop preparing to fight. Surrender.”
Helprin reiterates that China’s goal will be to do all of this without firing a shot. He predicts that “Opposition will arise within to do the bidding of those from the outside.” Helprin turns back to President Obama. “Obama’s plan was to empower Iran, ostensibly to police the Middle East. Obama changed the focus of our Middle East policy to support our enemy, Iran. Iran constantly opposes us, constantly strengthens itself.” As recently as November 2022, Helprin observes, “Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, vowed, ‘Death to America will happen. In the new order I am talking about, America will no longer have any important role.’” Helprin highlights the headline of a report by Iran’s state-controlled Afkar News that reads (in Farsi): “American Soil Is Now Within the Range of Iranian Bombs.” The report itself brags about the damage Iran could inflict on the United States, stating that the Islamic Republic can use “a high-altitude electromagnetic bomb to attack the United States.” The consequence would be that our electrical grid is fried leading to widespread devastation and death.
Should “Iran get a nuke, the only thing that will stop it is force.” And in this discussion of nuclear gamesmanship, Helprin declares, “We have to think about the unthinkable so that the unthinkable doesn’t happen.” In reference to the earlier Iranian news report, he adds, “We as a nation can’t hear it when people threaten us.” But an electromagnetic pulse bomb attack (EMP) could be used. “Iran could shoot a missile out of a submarine with pressure into water, and the water stabilizes it and launches it, and it goes to its target: USA.” Another way, he outlines, “would be to drop a short-range missile from a freighter in the middle of the Atlantic.” The goal of any such strike is to “set off a low yield nuclear charge that will go over the United States and kill 90% of Americans and destroy our networks.”
Helprin reports that he has “given up on the United States doing the right thing.” He notes that on “terrorism, China, emerging pathogens, war in Europe, Iranian nukes, and an EMP strike, I wrote front and center on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, and badgered government officials at the very highest levels, all to absolutely no avail.” And that was hardly the first time. Helprin relayed how, “in the 1980s, when a rash of terrorism attacks were made against Americans inside the Middle East, I said we should hit terrorist training camps in various columns. I consulted with various people in the government about it. We knew where terrorist training camps were located. We didn’t do anything.”
The stunning events of 9/11, where planes were turned into bombs against civilian and military targets, were foreseeable, Helprin relates. “In a piece in 1996 in the Wall Street Journal on terrorism, I mentioned Islamic terrorists commandeering planes to crash into skyscrapers. Also, around this time I was in a working group on national defense. I said, ‘We need to revivify air defenses in the USA.’ The response was ‘Why?’ ‘Civilian planes can be crashed into cities,’ I told them.” Helprin recalls how he based this on his experience in the Israeli Air Force. “A Libyan plane flew over the Sinai desert. Israel sends jets immediately, fearing the plane would attack Tel Aviv. The plane turned around and was flying back over Sinai. The plane’s pilots refused to respond, and Israel shot it down. It was known, use big planes as bombs.”
In 2000, Helprin wrote an essay titled “East Wind” in National Review. Here he argued that a relationship between economic and military growth clearly exists and has been displayed by Israel who learned it from Japan’s rapid escalation of forces prior to World War II. “I laid out in 2000 what’s happened the past 23 years in China. China has had immense growth. They constantly increase military spending and are still growing economically. I said between the years 2015-2020, China will achieve military parity. And China has military superiority now, or it will very soon.”
Will the Image Conquer the Word?
Things can still get worse. One response to Helprin’s resignation is that this is what democracies do; they refuse the hard course, doing what is easy because it is easy. The hope is that the counter-response inside the country will emerge as certain leaders recognize the problems it faces and change course. Winston Churchill’s rallying of Great Britain to face Germany at the beginning of World War II, despite his country’s ignoring the warnings he had issued about Germany during the 1930s, is one example. But that’s the question: Does America still retain that strength and wisdom? There might be further reasons for answering in the negative.
On Critical Race Theory and gender ideology, Helprin describes both “as part of our regime now.” It has become “revolutionary to think otherwise.” He notes, “What do you expect? Our country marginalizes religion, and religion teaches us what to aspire to and who we are. Religion teaches us virtue, and how you know what your purpose is. Without religion and virtue, you become vulnerable, passive.”
The other route to our passivity is how “the image has conquered the word,” he states. Technology, Helprin thinks, in the form of TV, computer screens, smartphones, and now social media has changed in many respects the nature of people. “You stare at screens; you just receive imagery for five to seven hours per day. Evil people like Mark Zuckerberg and other talented people are now able to amplify this passivity.”
Helprin says his father helped him to realize this nearly fifty years ago in a conversation about his future as a writer, “my dad relayed to me that I had about 20-30 years of time before people will give up on the word. That is the hold that the compression of imagery will have on people.”
The “word,” Helprin explains, “is the work of reading. We decode as we read. It requires much work to do it.” But the “compression of information, movement, picture, sound, color, transmission, all this moving at a fast pace has allowed for the image to conquer the word. People are now addicted to images; they do not appreciate the word.” Two things combine then: the passivity of a secular people cut off from God and virtue, and the passivity of a people who are now trapped in the cave of flickering lights, endlessly manipulated but thinking that what they see is real. That’s us.
“So we shouldn’t be surprised,” Helprin says, “that people lack the confidence and the moral knowledge to say no to all of these situations involving transgenderism and Critical Race Theory when they have been rendered passive by these developments.” Another way to think about the so-called “Snowflake generation,” Helprin notes, “is that they can’t do anything themselves. They don’t chop their own vegetables. Everything is delivered. They are not thinking about anything. Everything comes to you, quickly. So anything can be introduced and accepted.”
This is not to deny other ideological influences that changed America. Helprin recounts “his proximity to [Herbert] Marcuse’s disciples through the influence Marcuse had on roommates, friends, and classmates.” But this also “points out how ideologically purposeful and clear the Left was about planning its long march through the institutions.” Helprin relates that as a graduate student in the early ’70s, “I knew people who went to Italy and came back after contact with the Red Brigades and were thoroughly indoctrinated Gramscians.” It became “fashionable to declare that one was going into teaching—at all levels—so as to grab the impressionable young.” So it should not have been surprising how “Americans, unschooled in sharp, deliberate, ideological warfare,” could not have been expected to “defend themselves against this, much less to have known what it was.” The casualties quickly mounted. “University academics and administrators, unschooled in Leninist combat, fell like flies at the end of summer. A noble resistance was mounted by the European exiles who had been through this before at the hands of the Italian Fascists, the Nazis, and the Communists, but they were outnumbered, and they, too, fell.”
How might America be pulled back from the brink? While necessary, sound policies and politics on their own will surely not be sufficient. We are going to need a public philosophy with an open invitation to moral imagination. We should return to the original spirit informing Helprin’s novels.
The inscription at the beginning of In Sunlight and In Shadow bears the classic words from Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno, Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare (Love moved me, and makes me speak). “Literature must be about this,” Helprin affirms. He elaborates that “Dante met Beatrice on a bridge in Florence, Beatrice looked up, and he looked at her. Beatrice looks up at God, God looks at her, she is illuminated, in loving her, he is loving God. This is the reason for men and women. We see God in loving one another. This is to know love as a species of divine love.”
Patriotism isn’t romantic love, but it’s the love of a national home, its laws, institutions, and memories. And we should love this home which has given us so many reasons for gratitude. Helprin’s characters are frequently led by love of home, family, courage, and loss. So overwhelmed are they at times by loss that they retreat, only to be called once more into the fray. Something similar might be said for Mark Helprin. He tells me that he has nearly given up on our country doing the right thing. But I don’t believe him. Once more…