Clackamas Shooting Memorial
Morning Must-Read: Lant Pritchett and Lawrence Summers: Growth Slowdowns: Middle-Income Trap vs. Regression to the Mean

Weekend Reading: Alfred Kazin (1989): The New Republic: Personal View

NewImageVia Corey Robin:

Alfred Kazin: The New Republic: A Personal View: "I am just a vear older than The New Republic...

...and have been writing for it, on and off, since I was a 19-year-old City College senior in 1934. I was literary editor in 1942 and 1943 and a contributing editor for some years after that.

Before I ever dreamed of writing for it I knew something of its political history—-its founding at the height of the Progressive era and its supposed link with Woodrow Wilson (the last intellectual to occupy the White House) through the Promise of American Life agenda of its first editors, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Philip Littell. and Walter Weyl. Later I learned of the bitter disillusionment with the Versailles Treaty that turned it "isolationist" in the '20s.

I came to see for myself its "left-leaning" during the Depression and its sudden support of World War II, not unconnected with the promptings of Willard Straight's widow Dorothy Whitney, who had funded the paper from the beginning and was now married to the English educational reformer Leonard Elmhirst. I had a long meeting with the Elmhirsts when I was a reporter in England in 1945.

From my reading of the paper and the books of Croly, Lippmann, Van Wyck Brooks, Jobn Dewey, Randolph Bourne, and others of the "progressive generation," I was all loo familiar with the many causes, arguments, doctrines, fashions, exclusions, and petty fanaticisms of American liberal democracy that had tramped through TNR from 1914 on. I knew even better and valued far more highly the literary side of the paper, which had championed supposedly "difficult" American moderns (like Robert Frost!) from the beginning.

Under Edmund Wilson's sporadic tenure and Malcolm Cowley's longer stay, TNR had been crucial to the encouragement and protection of supposedly "unreadable" and "unacceptable" American talents. Wilson's epoch-making introduction to Stein, Proust, Joyce, and Yeats in Axel's Castle (1932) was first serialized right in the middle of the paper, not in "the back of the book." The same central place in the paper was later given to selections from Wilson's To the Finland Station (1940); earlier his remarkable reporting in The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump (1932) had also been featured in the most notable place. What Wilson believed in those days (TNR had good reason to assume) was what all thoughtful Americans, united by progressive ideals, now turning eagerly left, would sooner or later want to think.

What stays with me most about the 75 years of TNR is not just what was said bv one generation and disavowed by another, but the division--now apparently more fixed than ever--between "the front of the book" (the issues of the day, politics, the "real world") and "the back of the book" (the arts, literature, and even an occasional poem). This division, to my mind, is not lifted or modified by the surly discontent with the young and with perversely left-leaning academics I often tind in "M.P."'s "Diarist" column at the very end. That often sounds like the very end of all liberal hope and of attention to some larger discontent in American life.

In the late summer of 1942. when I joined the literary side of the paper, the "rront of the book" was Bruce Bliven, a hearty, professionally genial, but fretful ex-newspaperman who had been hired away from the New York Globe in the 1920s to put order into a paper still dominated by distracted intellectuals who felt that their mission to the country and the age wenr far beyond TNR.

With the passing or easing out of these early figures--Walter Lippmann had shocked Herbert Croly bv leaving to write editorials for the New York World--Bliven became TNR's one and only boss. Some famous early names remained on the masthead as contributing editors, but Bliven gave out the political line. With the help of a sensitive young Southerner. Tom Sancton (Tom was always decrying and bemoaning New York), Bliven wrote wartime editorials whose recurrent theme was "Turn The War Into A Global New Deal!" I thought this poppycock, and relished in "the front of the book" only TRB (Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor), who wrote about Washington with becoming skepticism. The "century of the common man" message was just a starter for the Henry Wallace who later succeeded to ihe editor's chair.

Edmund Wilson had been gone from TNR for some time, but Bliven at "the front of the book" and Wilson at "the back of the book" had been at such odds that not even Wilson's absence prevented Bliven at the famous in-office lunches from brooding bitterly on that distinguished and difficult man. I was 27 years old, entirely new to editing and publishing, admired Wilson beyond words, and until I wised up, was puzzled bv the guarded, strangled muttering about Wilson's character I heard from Bliven. Since the latter was glad to feature two chapters from my first book. On Native Grounds, I was baffled by the angry despair Bliven had fomented in all my predecessors.

Once, when I asked him what he thought ol Wilson's writing, Bliven roared back:

What do I think of Edmund Wilson? I think. God damn it, that Edmund Wilson is the best critic in the English-speaking world!

Wilson had actually been fired from the paper after an unsuccessful effort lo oust Bliven. "I'm a terrible conspirator," Wilson unnecessarily told me in the 1960s when he gave me his account. My hazy impression of the farcical in-office putsch was that there had been a bitter Bliven-Wilson dispute after the order had gone out from the now-English Dorothy Whitney Straight Elmhirst for the paper to reverse its between-the-wars isolalionism and support Britain's war against Hitler.

Wilson, like Charles Beard and other distinguished leftovers of the Progressive period who had never recovered from what John Dos Passos, even as a right-winger, still called "Mr. Wilson's War," saw Pearl Harbor as a plot by Roosevelt. When I first met my literary hero in 1942, he was at a low ebb, had difficulties getting review assignments because of his grumbling about the war, but was now as distant from the Lenin he had admired in To the Finland Station as he was from any enthusiasm for FDR, TNR's "leader of the free world."

In the perverse introduction he tacked on to his great book on the literature of the Civil War. Patriotic Gore (1962), Wilson managed to equate Lenin with Lincoln as dangerous nationalists. Bruce Catton said of Patriotic Gore that Wilson knew everything about the Civil War except "what it was for."

In 1942 he seemed not to know what Hitler's war was all about. He was frighteningly self-willed in the largest as well as the most trivial matters. He supposed that his great literary powers and extraordinary personal culture--unmatched by any professor I knew--entitled him to make sweeping judgments about things beyod his heart. Betty Huling. the briskly-competent, loud-swearing copy editor in my day, said of Wilson (whom she adored) that he was "hard as a diamond." Wilson actually wrote that Jews were wrong to support the w aragainst Hitler as they did, since the "extermination" of the Jews was "far advanced" bv the time we entered the war.

Bliven could not have cared less about his young book editor's literary passions. But he made no objection when, in 1943, I was able to break the sterile division between the "front" and "back" by using the greater part of the paper to honor the centenary of William and Henry James with essays by William Troy, Irwin Edman, Philip Rav, Jacques Barzun, and myself. When Allan Tate challenged me to publish his "More Sonnets at Christmas" (Tate was well on his way to Catholicism, scornful of war-pride and the liberal delusion that the most terrible slaughter in history would ease the way to the liberal utopia), Bliven strongly objected.

Tate, the almost professional Confederale and "agrarian," famous for describing the whole modern industrial world as an infamy and America as well on the way to becoming another Imperial Rome, aroused every possible antipathy in the agonized liberal Bliven. Since TNR was shouting on its cover BEWARE A STATIC WAR! he found as much to object to in Tate's scorn as he did in the sytitactical complexity of Tate's verses.

Even after I had dragged in Malcolm Cowley to support me, Bliven summed up tor all time the everlasting trouble between the "front" and the "back" of the book: "If I don't understand these poems," he told me, "how in hell do you expect our readers to understand ihem?"

I began to understand the difficulty Bliven had with my immediate predecessor, the English critic Nigel Dennis, who had departed in a fury. Literary editors after me, notably the great rescuer of refugee Varian Fry and the audacious young philosopher and novelist Isaac Rosenfeld, were to have the same sense of irony about Bliven and TNR that I developed.

I was an uneasy book editor. There was always too much work rewriting reviews even by prominent people who did not seem to mind my remaking their drifting sentences. I understood Malcolm Cowley all too well when he lamented ihe amount of time he had spent in the old days rewriting that clumsy stylist John Dewey. Cowley for decades at a time had been the greatest influence on the "back"; his lead review each week, on such great books of the 1930s as Ignacio Silone's Fontamara, Andre Mai\lraux's Man's Fate, and the poems of W. H. Auden, were among the most important events of the literary decade. I admired his gift of clear style far more than I did his support for the verdicts in the Moscow Trials.

Cowley, who later repented of all this, believed in the "spirit of the age," ihe necessary progress of history, and could no more turn his back on his Stalinist friends than he could, in a pinch, think like John Dewey in that great book Art as Experience.

Cowley was notable in every way for personal presence and literary sophistication. I was too occupied with the horrors of war to take the TNR line seriously. The best thing about being book editor in 1942 and '43 was the procession into my cubicle of young Village poets and philosophers: Delmore Schwartz, William Barrett, Isaac Rosenfeld, Weldon Kees.

Saul Bellow wandered in one day, astonishing me by his brilliance and his belief in the fame that awaited him. The Italian Jewish critic Paolo Milano became a lifelong teacher and friend. Europe's intellectual refugees, France's great painters--they were all over New York--and meeting Marc Chagall on 57th Street, hearing Bela Bartok's music for the first time, meant far more to me ihan the magazine that seemed to think of the war as a progressive war, a people's war, a lovable war.

Stalin was everyone's "Uncle Joe." He was not mine. Before too long, I was shattered by the news thai Henrich Erlich and Victor Alter, the leaders of the "Bund," the Jewish Workers Party in Poland, had been shot by the Soviets, charged with "urging Soviet troops not to resist the Nazis, and urging an imme- diate peace treaty with Nazi Germany."

After fleeing to Russia from the Nazi invasion of Poland, they had gladly endorsed the Anti-Fascist Peoples Committee of the day. designed to gain worldwide Jewish support for Russia, but had obviously opposed Stalin's determination lo take Poland over completely after the war.

How well I remember the memorial meeting for Erlich and Alter. There was a very sparse attendance; the only other writer I saw there was Murray Kempton. And it had only been because of the influence of William Green, the chiet of the American Federation of Labor, and of Eleanor Roosevelt that we were privileged to know the fate of Erlich and Alter.

My most significant contribution to TNR in 1942-43 was a "J'Accuse," "In Every Voice and Every Ban," about the suicide letter in London of the Jewish Socialist Shnuiet Ziegelboim, representing the Jewish Workers Bund in the Polish government-in-exile. Ziegelboim had been secreted out of Warsaw in order to bring the slaughter of the Jews to the attention of the world. In In London he fell into such despair about his failure to reach general opinion that the wrote an extraordinary letter detailing the horror being visited upon his people and, on May 12, 1943, took his own life.

I had never met Ziegelboimm before finding his letter in an obscure corner of the The New York Times. It changed my life, recharged my sense of myself as a Jew, but also gave me a lasting bitterness about "war aims" that did not heed this cry.

...the Germans, with the most ruthless cruelty, are now murdering the few remaining Jews in Poland. Behind the ghetto's walls the last act of a tragedy unprecedented in history is being performed The responsibility for this crime of murdering the entire Jewish population of Poland... is also a burden on the whole of humanity.

By the passive observation of the number of defenseless millions... these countries have become the criminals' accomplices.

I cannot be silent--I cannot live--while remnants of the Jewish people of Poland, of whom I am a representative, are perishing. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto took weapons m their hands on that last heroic impulse. It was not my destiny to die there together with them, but I belong to them, and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of my people....

To this I added:

Something has alrcadv been done--by us the bystanders as well as the Nazi killers—-that will never be undone.... The people who have been most indifferent to the massacre of tbe Jews will be just those wbo wonder why all the pacts and all the formal justice will have done so little to give them their prewar 'security' again.

You who want only to live and let live, to have the good life back--and think that you can dump three million Jews into the furnace, and sigh in the impotence of your undeniable regret, and then build Europe back again! Where so great a murder has been allowed, no one is safe.

Since I was physically out of tbe war and wanted desperatelv to get overseas, I accepted an invitation from Henry Luce's minions to join Fortune. Lucehad actually once written for INR, but his letter ended: "When you have fmished your apprenticeship on THE NEW REPUBLlC, come to us." I finally got overseas under higher auspices.

After the 1940s my connection with TNR was sporadic. There was a long period in which I read it out of habit, was never asked to write for it, and was the subject of atrocious all-out attacks by Joseph Heller and Richard Poirier. I didn't write for the paper again until Martin Peretz bought it in 1974. And it was with pleasute that, when Peretz's first literary editor, Roger Rosenblatt, asked me to review a new edition of the conespon- detice ol John and Abigail Adams. I wrote my first review in years and felt I was sort of home again.

Still, I bave to say that the division I see every week between the "real world" and mere literature looks more useless than ever. The intelligence dtsplayed in die back of tbe book is of the highest order, reminding me of the great pieces from 1914 on that helped to foment and shape "American moderns."

Robert Ftost, in despair of finding a hearing in his own country, went to England before World War I. He found on his return a magazine be had never beard of, with a review in it of North of Boston (February 20, 1915) by Amy Lowell, applauding "the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time." An impassioned sympathy with creative talent rather than the usual frigid critical showmanship distinguishes the rematkable pieces Leon Wieseltier has run: Edward Rothstein on the art of Glenn Gould, Derek Walcott on V.S. Naipaul, Joseph Brodskv's Nobel lecture, David Denby on Primo Levi. Breyten Breytenbach on "The South African Wasteland," and Wieseltier's own essay on David Grossman and the crisis of Israeli liberalism.

What Wieseltier cannot do is bring back the days before the million-dollar advances, the deafening stupid hype, the "Today" show for the promotion of manufactured best sellers Books die today faster than ever, and in greater numbers, without anybody particularly noticing or caring.

It is impossible to run something today like "Books That Changed Our Minds," a great feature in TNR of the late 1930s. That symposium illustrated an influence, a shaping, a lasting, an ideal of minds working on minds such as seminal books used to accomplish in the happy seedtime of, ves, the terrible 1930s., when people knew that the existing culture was a quicksand.

Amos Oz's complaint against American Jewish writers (excepting Saul Bellow) applies to more than these writers: "You don't see the stars in their writing"--meaning that there is no elevation, no spiritual largeeness. Our literary period may yet be numbered as one in which the book business replaced the literary world, in which literary theory replaced literature, and in which, as Irving Howe has said, Marxism came to its end--in the English Department!

As things go now, I cannot imagine ever appearing outside the literary section, for "culture" is not sufficiently recognized as an influence in itself: What I read in the front of the book is informative, saucy, in tone terribly sure of itself It gives me n o general enlightenment on the moral and intellectual crisis underlying the crisis of the week, above all no inspiration. There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching.

Washington is more beautiful and imposing than it has ever been--if you overlook Anacostia and Shaw. It always looks like Sundav; it can be a relief after openly decadent, bleeding New York. But like all (company towns, it is parochial, and TNR reflects that, is too much occupied by and with town gossips. Except for government scientists, no real ideas ever start here. The many clever people in and out of government re not "intellectuals" in the old sense--thinkers with a sense of prophecy--but "experts," no-nonsense minds that can chill me.

When I read in TNR that homeless people are invariably mental cases in need of treatment, I realize that economic frustration and hopelessness, the real bottom line, are to some privileged folks never a condition but, as Gertrude Himmelfarb put in the title of her book on poverty, 'an idea'.

I wish I conld think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing—-beyond a certain parsenu smugness, an excessive familiarity with the inside track and the inside dope, and, above all, beyond that devouring interest in other journalists that confines so many commentaries out of Washington to triviality. I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington, that are apparent more lo writers—-confined wherever they may be--than to the wearily clever, easily exasperated, heirs and guardians of the liberal democracy that is the one tradition we seem to have left,