A quick look at the friends John Chamberlain has made in his six-decade career as literary critic, journalist, and columnist-from novelist John Dos Passos to Time-Life kingpin Henry Luce to aviator Charles Lindbergh-suggests that (a) Chamberlain has a winning personality, and (b) the guy's been around.
Yale graduate John Chamberlain came to national attention when he became the New York Times's first daily-that's right, daily, as in five days a week-book reviewer in the 1930s. A rigorous job, surely, but his crisp, concise style led Yale professor William Lyon Phelps to anoint him the 'finest critic of his generation. "
Like so many young literary men of his day, Chamberlain developed an interest in politics, where he displayed vaguely socialist sympathies. In 1936 he left the Times for a job at the business magazine Fortune. Associations with Life, Barron's, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, followed. During this time his politics evolved from "socialism to...a nonstatist voluntarism."He also began to abandon his prewar isolationism and, as he became increasingly involved in the nascent conservative movement, championed a more aggressive foreign policy.
After the war, Chamberlain joined with individualist writers Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne La Follette in launching The Freeman, a fortnightly intended to serve as the voice of the emergent coalition of conservatives and libertarians opposed to the reigning liberalism. The journal soon self-destructed in a series of internecine conflicts. A couple years later, William F. Buckley, Jr., launched National Review; Chamberlain served as lead book reviewer in its early years.
He has been a fixture in the conservative movement ever since. He still writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column for King Features and does monthly book reviews for a metamorphosed Freeman. His wife, Ernestine, teaches dance aesthetics and criticism at New York University.
The critic Clifton Fadiman, in a 1936 Saturday Review profile of his friend Chamberlain, ventured the guess that "like so many gently nurtured, college-bred Americans, he will never really look old. " Now 83 and a bit gray around the temples, Chamberlain laughs when reminded of Fadiman s prophecy. It is a very young laugh.
John Chamberlain was interviewed in his New York City office by REASON editor Bill Kauffman.
Reason: Was newspaper life in the '20s and '30s as hard-drinking and fast as Front Page legend would have it?
Chamberlain: It depended on what paper you worked for. If you worked for the Times, which I did, you worked with some very sober people. If you worked for the Daily News it was a little bit different. The Front Page was a caricature of things. It certainly wasn't universally true for New York, where you had 17 papers. They weren't all drunks.
Reason: You were a daily book reviewer for three years with the Times?
Chamberlain: I did a five-times-a-week book review for three years, from '33 to '36. Then I left and went to work for Fortune. In '41 I left Fortune and free-lanced three times a week for the Times for three more years.
Reason: How does one do a daily book review? Do you just read the back flap and take it from there?
Chamberlain: No. You can read the whole book if you get up early enough. Read crossing Times Square. Read on the subway and on weekends. It can be done.
Reason: It doesn't leave you any time for pleasure reading, does it?
Chamberlain: I don't advise it! You don't have any fun reading. You learn to read subjects and verbs and skip the adjectives. You discover you don't remember an awful lot about what you read three or four days later.