Review of D.D. Guttenplan’s “The Nation: A Biography (The First 150 Years)”

tags: book review, DD Guttenplan, The Nation A Biography

Robert Shaffer is professor of history at Shippensburg University.

The Nation magazine is 150 years old in 2015, and it’s throwing a party for itself. There have been celebrations and panel discussions in a dozen cities, a 250-page commemorative issue that mixes present-day commentary with excerpts from scores of articles from the magazine’s archives, and a documentary, “Hot Type,” by Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple. Now we have an authorized “biography” of the magazine by D.D. Guttenplan, a former intern and current London bureau correspondent of “America’s oldest weekly.”

As with any authorized book of a person or institution, there are limitations, but on the whole Guttenplan has written a frank institutional history of a magazine that has played, and continues to play, an important role in U.S. history, society, and politics. The primary target audience for the book, no doubt, is the avid reader of the magazine, who will not be disappointed by the nicely-drawn character sketches of many of the colorful figures who have edited, written for, and put up the money for The Nation. Subscribers who are regularly asked for additional funds for what is supposed to be a profit-making endeavor will nod knowingly at Guttenplan’s explanations of the perennially precarious financial status of the magazine, going back to 1865. Casual readers of the magazine, however, will probably be surprised to learn of some of its writers and funders. The associations of James Baldwin, I.F. Stone, and Paul Newman with the magazine are known to many. But who knew that Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead helped solicit initial financial backing for the journal, that Henry James bankrolled his early career as a novelist by writing over 200 articles for the magazine, and that Civil War historian Bruce Catton served as its Washington correspondent?

My first experience teaching with The Nation came almost thirty years ago as a high school social studies teacher who discovered in a bookroom unused copies of Eyewitness: The Negro in American History (1967). Editor William Loren Katz excerpted the 1920 report by James Weldon Johnson, the prominent African American poet, activist and diplomat, which ran as a four-part series in The Nation on the racism and economic exploitation which permeated the then-ongoing U.S. military occupation of Haiti. Ever since, I have had students in a variety of courses read parts of this damning account. I was particularly pleased that Guttenplan mentions Johnson’s exposé in his discussion of the magazine’s new directions after World War I. For the past fifteen years, I have also assigned to my U.S. diplomatic history students John Tirman’s “How We [i.e., the peace movement] Ended the Cold War,” from the November 1, 1999 issue.

The Nation was founded by exuberant abolitionists as their cause neared success. Guttenplan tells that story well in his first chapter, but he also recounts the mutual mistrust and antagonism which permeated this seemingly like-minded group. From that point on, chapters are organized, rather conventionally around the major editors and publishers of the magazine, with chapter titles helpful in pointing to their major preoccupations and to the changes they instituted. Most chapters involve the connection and the tension between liberalism and radicalism, which Guttenplan identifies as the key theme in the magazine’s development.

Thus, “Those Pesky Anti-Imperialists,” focuses on E.L. Godkin and Wendell Phillips Garrison, who broke with the dominant Republican perspective in the 1890s over the exertion of U.S. muscle, first in Venezuela and then in Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Anti-imperialism would thenceforth be a consistent focus of the magazine.

Guttenplan portrays Oswald Garrison Villard – Wendell’s nephew and William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson, wealthy enough on his father’s side to purchase The Nation and the New York Post – as a “Reluctant Radical.” Villard initially served as an unofficial adviser for Woodrow Wilson and held himself aloof from Progressive Era muckraking, but later unexpectedly found himself a critic and an outsider as the President tightened segregation, brought the U.S. into World War I, and violated the civil liberties of antiwar dissenters. The Nation itself felt some of that repression, as the Postmaster General suppressed one week’s issue in 1918 – although Villard believed that the resulting publicity actually boosted circulation. Guttenplan informs us, too, that Villard was the first American editor to publish the secret treaties between the British, French, Russians, Italians, and Japanese that the Bolsheviks uncovered in late 1917, though that was in the Post, not The Nation.

Freda Kirchwey, the first woman to edit a major American political magazine, was a “Practical Utopian,” a supporter of the New Deal who always believed Franklin Roosevelt could go further in economic and social reform, and a strong anti-fascist who as World War II loomed pushed for U.S. intervention, unlike her predecessors. In addition to the moving account of Kirchwey in her early years at the magazine attempting to balance work and motherhood, Guttenplan makes two important points about her editorship. First, he argues that Kirchwey campaigned before, during, and after World War II for the U.S. to take in more Jewish refugees from Europe and then for the establishment of the state of Israel. This stance is significant in light of debates among historians as to whether the U.S. press was attentive enough to Jewish suffering under Hitler’s rule, and it is also of interest considering the magazine’s refusal in recent decades to line up behind all of Israel’s policies.

Second, contrary to the long-standard account that editorials and news articles under Kirchwey were uncritical of the Soviet Union while book reviews and arts coverage in the “back of the book” reflected the views of anti-Stalinist leftists and liberals, Guttenplan demonstrates that this editor, like Villard before her and others afterwards, were never enamored of the Soviets. A pro-Moscow dispatch from an on-scene correspondent in the 1930s might appear alongside an editorial denouncing a show trial and a letter from Leon Trotsky himself. Later, Kirchwey, though critical of U.S. Cold War policy, refused to endorse Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign for President, thereby losing subscriptions from many in the Communist Party’s orbit. Guttenplan acknowledges, however, that Kirchwey made a costly public relations mistake when in 1951 she filed suit for libel against a rival publication, The New Leader, which had accused Nation columnist (and former official of the Spanish Republic) Julio Alvarez del Vayo of parroting the Stalinist line.

“How Free is Free?” profiles the tenure of Carey McWilliams, already well-known for his attacks on racial prejudice and economic exploitation before arriving at the magazine in the 1950s, as he positioned the magazine even more forthrightly in favor of civil liberties and civil rights. Exposés of the FBI and of secret American support for the overthrow of Fidel Castro in 1960-61, as well as early analyses of the folly of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, argued for reducing federal government power. Meanwhile, muckraking accounts of the tobacco industry and of unsafe automobiles (helping to launch Ralph Nader’s career) called for stronger government regulation. The Nation under McWilliams was intimately connected to some of the 1960s activism. Martin Luther King, for example, wrote six annual progress reports on the struggle against racism, and he previewed his opposition to the Vietnam War at a Nation symposium two months before his now-classic speech at Riverside Church on that issue. Guttenplan’s analysis falters a bit in this chapter, however. At the outset, he downplays the cultural and generational gap between McWilliams and the New Left, only to acknowledge twenty-four pages later that the magazine generally did not speak to or for this new cohort of radical activists.

Bringing a humorist’s touch as well as an academic bent to the journal from the late 1970s until the 1990s, Victor Navasky went far toward redressing that problem, as Guttenplan explains in the aptly titled “The Importance of Not Being Ernest.” With strong-minded staff and columnists including Andrew Kopkind (introducing a gay and feminist sensibility), Alex Cockburn (radical and polemical), Christopher Hitchens (resolutely anti-Communist and anti-Cockburn), and Calvin Trillin (often poking fun at the magazine itself), Navasky refereed disagreements as he encouraged the free-wheeling expression of both liberal and radical ideas. More subtly, says Guttenplan, Navasky nurtured several female voices who would later take on larger roles, including Katha Pollitt and current editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

The overview of Vanden Heuvel’s editorship (“Onward!”) includes a sensitive account of the magazine’s response to 9/11 and soon thereafter of its leadership in the opposition to the drive to war in Iraq. Guttenplan appropriately highlights Jonathan Schell’s contributions, as the prominent antiwar commentator moved from the New Yorker to The Nation. Nevertheless, even a fan of the magazine, and of its increased reach through the internet and through its editors’ and columnists’ appearances on television, as Guttenplan describes, detects more cheerleading than analysis in this chapter. One can almost feel the stock phrase “the state of The Nation is strong” bubbling up through the prose. Of course, authorized histories often exhibit a greater willingness to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism on earlier periods than on more recent ones.

And Guttenplan, indeed, does reveal far less comforting areas of the journal’s intellectual history when he considers the editorship of E.L. Godkin and the meanings that “radical” and “liberal” had in the late nineteenth century. “Radical,” as in Radical Republican, implied a willingness to use the power of the federal government to spur economic growth and compel states to follow certain rules, while “liberal” still connoted a devotion to laisser-faire economics and elitist politics. Thus, Godkin’s and The Nation’s radicalism with regard to Reconstruction quickly evaporated; some dispatches instead even defended Ku Klux Klan violence. As Guttenplan writes, “The Nation’s abandonment of the freed slaves…makes the most painful reading.” Godkin and his fellow contributors also abandoned their early support for women’s suffrage and for railroad regulation, and for decades they editorialized stridently against strikes and labor activism. Guttenplan’s unflinching summaries and excerpts make for painful reading, indeed, for those accustomed to the magazine’s self-description as the “conscience” of “the nation.” (Historian Eric Foner, a frequent writer for the magazine who wrote a brief introduction for this book, nicely recapitulates these aspects of The Nation’s ideological trajectory in his essay in the 150th anniversary commemorative issue.)

At fewer than 250 pages of text, Guttenplan’s book cannot be – and does not claim to be – a full history of a 150-year-old magazine which has commented on and influenced so many aspects of politics, society, and culture. Instead, Guttenplan effectively synthesizes memoirs and biographies of the editors and major contributors (including his own well-received biography of I.F. Stone) while citing and describing selected articles from the magazine.

Nevertheless, there are three areas in which the reader might have expected more. First, while Guttenplan inevitably compares and contrasts The Nation with the New Republic, there are only off-handed mentions of other important liberal-to-radical magazines and newspapers, such as PM, The Progressive, Ramparts, and Mother Jones. The journalistic context, therefore, could be stronger. (One hesitantly points out here – it was undoubtedly too late for Guttenplan’s book – that the New Republic all but imploded in late 2014, just after celebrating its own 100th anniversary.)

Second, while Guttenplan rightly celebrates Kirchwey’s support for Jewish refugees and the establishment of Israel, he glides over the controversies surrounding the magazine’s stance toward Israel and Palestine over the past thirty years. The Nation’s approach to the region has had important ramifications for circulation, funding, staff relations, and its place on the American liberal-radical continuum, and it deserves substantive consideration.

Third, the citations of important figures who wrote for the magazine at times become mere name-dropping. To give one example of particular interest to historians, Guttenplan notes that Barton Bernstein, Eric Hobsbawm, William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn, and Bruce Catton all wrote for the magazine, but he gives no indication of what they said. The author might respond by pointing to an innovative aspect of The Nation: A Biography: that in its e-book format footnotes to articles from the magazine serve as hyperlinks to those articles. Therefore, many readers will be clicking back and forth as they read, and, Guttenplan might argue, being able to browse the original sources is more valuable than a brief article précis. Perhaps so, but not all readers have the e-book, and intellectual coherence requires at least a modicum of summary and analysis.

Historians, however, will benefit most from The Nation: A Biography by locating their particular interests within the magazine’s longer trajectory and, perhaps more practically, by gleaning references from Guttenplan’s text, footnotes, and hyperlinks for research and for teaching. While the magazine’s strengths are more apparent than weaknesses as Guttenplan’s narrative approaches the present, readers can also learn a great deal about continuity and change in the nation’s liberal, radical, and reform movements over the past 150 years from this account of The Nation.

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