The Face of Five Decades: Selections from Fifty Years of The New Republic
On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary last year The New Republic put out a special number which was then followed up a few months later with an anthology of selections from its entire history. The special number was poor; the anthology is wonderful. Are any conclusions to be drawn from the contrast? I believe there are, even allowing for the obvious advantage the editor of the anthology (Robert B. Luce) enjoyed over the editors of the special number in having more than 2500 issues of a distinguished magazine to choose from as against whatever talent happened to be currently available.
The New Republic today is probably about as good as a weekly journal of opinion in America is capable of being under prevailing conditions. Certainly it has been a much better magazine in the past five years than it was in the Fifties—livelier, more assured of its own relevance, steadier, more authoritative in tone, more consistent in literary level. With Eisenhower out and Kennedy in, a dramatic change came over The New Republic: after a decade or more of marginality it was hooked into power once again and the voltage brightened a countenance which had been growing somewhat dim. The fact that it was a product of much the same Washington milieu that was now running the country had a profoundly tonic effect on The New Republic. A sense of alienation from political power may be good, even necessary, for the health of magazines based in New York, allowing them to look at the world from a perspective that is not automatically bounded by the going terms of discussion or limited by the available alternatives. But for a magazine based, as The New Republic is, in Washington, there is only enervation to be gained from living on the periphery. Washington, after all, has little to offer an editor besides intimacy with national affairs. What he does with such intimacy is up to him, but let it once be withheld, and he might as well move his offices to Peoria. If I am a Washington editor, the capital is my lady—and if she be not so to me, what care I how fair she be?
We have it on the authority of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who has written a brief preface to each of the anthology’s five sections, divided into decades) that the lady was very fair indeed to The New Republic during the Kennedy administration.
In the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Truman [The New Republic] had enjoyed a relationship, however intermittent and conditional, to power. Now [in the Eisenhower years], as in the nineteen-twenties, the country had entered a time of contentment, with power apparently predisposed against ideas, against intellectuals and against all rockers of the boat…The New Republic’s decision to support John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 disappointed faithful Stevensonians…But Kennedy as President fulfilled the magazine’s best expectations, and to an astonishing degree, in the brief time permitted to him, revived the atmosphere of the progressive enlightenment of half a century earlier. Once again, The New Republic was read in the White House.
And it is still being read in the White House, at least by members of the President’s staff.
However, in coming full circle in its relation as a liberal journal to the political powers that be (if that is indeed a reasonably accurate way of describing what has happened to The New Republic), the magazine has not on the whole succeeded in tracing a parallel circle back to the cultural condition of its earlier years. Herein lies the significance of the contrast in quality between the special fiftieth anniversary number and The Faces of Five Decades—or, for that matter, between the first and last sections of the anthology itself. There are several excellent pieces in the 1954-64 section, but the 1914-23 sample simply takes your breath away. A few of the writers represented—like Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, H. L. Mencken, and Stark Young—are still remembered; others—like Walter E. Weyl, Philip Littell, Charles Merz, Robert Littell, Edward G. Lowry, W. W. Pearson, and Frances B. Williams—are by some miserable injustice now largely forgotten. They were all marvelous, marvelous in the same style, marvelous in a style that only the handful who are still alive, and a smaller handful yet who try to work within the distant tradition they established, are by now able to command.
Gilbert A. Harrison, who has been editing The New Republic since 1953, tells us that Herbert Croly, the magazine’s founding editor, believed in journalism that maintained—in Croly’s words—“an extremely delicate balance between being specific and being general, being aggressive and conciliatory, and between being practical and being visionary.” The key word in that beautifully apt characterization is balance, and another word for balance is poise. Poise above all is what strikes one in the writing of The New Republic’s early contributors, including, of course, Croly himself and Edmund Wilson (who joined the staff in 1926). It is there in the perfection of tonal pitch they seem so easily to strike: never strident or, if strident, self-consciously so, for deliberate effect; never patronizing; never pretentious; never unsure of what must be made explicit and what left implied; never pushing an irony too hard or missing one that invites itself in. It is there in the way they use the language: they speak as cultivated men of the world engaging in civilized discourse with their peers, and as such, they value lucidity, economy, and color in approximately that order. It is there in the way they talk about ideas, books, issues, personalities: as various aspects of the common life and the common culture, accessible to the general intelligence and susceptible of discussion in the terms by which the general intelligence operates. It is there in the astonishingly unerring sense of how much pressure is to be brought to bear on any given subject, or how little. It is there in the way they express partisanship: enemies are not ruled out of the human community and friends are not exalted above it. Philip Littell’s attack on H. L. Mencken is severe and damaging, but I cannot imagine that Mencken did not enjoy reading it. Robert Littell’s portrait of Henry Ford is devastating, but it may also be the most sympathetic treatment Ford has ever received. Clive Bell and Bernard Shaw tear each other to pieces in an exchange over aestheticism, but they must certainly have embraced the next time they met.
The strain that subsequent decades were to put on the capacity of liberal intellectuals to maintain such poise of mind and spirit and style can already be felt in the second section of the anthology, which covers the period 1924-33. The pieces by Lippmann, Wilson, Merz, and Croly (who died in 1930) are in the classical New Republic vein, but the overall impression we get from the section is of a loss of that sureness of touch which seemed unfailing in the earliest years. Bruce Bliven, Robert Morss Lovett, Matthew Josephson, and John W. Owens simply do not measure up, and even John Dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson are curiously gauche in their handling of reportorial assignments. And so it goes through the third and fourth decades: a few pieces (by Jonathan Mitchell, by Heywood Broun, by Stark Young, by Otis Ferguson) recalling the original poise; many others good after their own fashion, but the fashion worlds removed from The New Republic at its distinctive best; and still others forcibly confirming one’s feeling that something had gone wrong since the days of Croly’s reign.
But what? In his prefaces, Schlesinger explains the changes from one decade to the next in terms of the vicissitudes of “Eastern, metropolitan progressivism.” Thus, “beginning hopefully in 1914 as the organ of a progressive majority in a progressive era, the magazine saw itself a decade later as the voice of a civilized minority in an era of Babbitts.” In the Thirties, with “the foundations of the national complacency” shaken, The New Republic began to express a rising radicalism, and “ventured into new and uncertain waters.” Then, “in 1940 as a generation before, the magazine surrendered its perfectionism to its sense of international responsibility.” With the war over, “American liberalism confronted the problem of defining its own relations with a communism which seemed now less benign than some liberals had supposed in the thirties.” But with the defeat of Stevenson in 1952, “The New Republic found itself isolated from the national majority, as it had been in the twenties. Once again its role was to preserve standards and press analysis, to raise insurrections in men’s minds in preparation for a new progressive revival”—the revival that finally came, according to Schlesinger, with the election of John F. Kennedy to the Presidency.
While Schlesinger’s account is oversimplified (and I have simplified it further), it is true enough as far as it goes. What it fails to recognize, however, is that there is much more to the story than the ups and downs of the progressive ethos, or the shifts in the American temper from liberal to conservative and back again over the past fifty years. When we speak of a serious journal of opinion, we are talking about something more than political attitudes; we are even talking about something more than political attitudes combined with a concern for the arts. We are talking about the way people discuss the world around them from moment to moment, and therefore we are talking about nothing less than the degree of self-consciousness and the quality of intelligence by which a culture is actually able to live day by day, week by week, month by month. It would be disingenuous and historically naive to pretend that the poise of The New Republic’s early years was lost in subsequent decades because bad men took over the citadel from good men. The truth, of course, is that the Croly tradition—rooted as it was in the faith that Reason could prevail against all other forces in the ordering of human affairs—was unable to hold out against the cataclysms of the Thirties and Forties. Nor was it able to withstand a host of other pressures: the challenge to its characteristic tone that came from the rhetoric of radicalism in the Thirties, which brought stridency, dogmatism, and wrath into fashion in political discourse; the challenge to its sense of literary proportion that came from the rise of the New Criticism, which brought density, huge ambitiousness, and scholasticism into literary discourse and trained generations of students to scorn the language of the common reader; the challenge to its belief in the general intelligence that came from the increasing specialization and academicization of American intellectual life; the challenge to its cultivated mode of examining public affairs that came from the barbarization of newspaper prose.
All this happened; it was all probably inevitable; and it has cost us more, perhaps, than we know. Still, the fact that The New Republic today bears a closer resemblance to Croly’s magazine than it did in years past is a good sign—and there are others—that the cost may yet be redeemed, that we may yet learn how to conduct civilized discourse again—from moment to moment, from day to day, from week to week.