Civil Liberties

A Biography of a Magazine

A new book reviews a left-wing weekly's 150-year history.


Could we have a moratorium on subtitles that include the words "surprising" or "improbable"?
Nation Books

Back in March, I wrote about the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation, paying special attention to D.D. Guttenplan's three-part article on the left-wing weekly's history. His long essay was a teaser for a still longer book—The Nation: A Biography—which Guttenplan has now published. The book is a good read for anyone interested in either the history of journalism or the history of the left: The Nation was a forum for liberals' and radicals' arguments over everything from Reconstruction to Stalinism and from the New Deal to the War on Terror, so the story of the magazine inevitably does double duty as the story of those debates.

Since my earlier piece pointed out some parts of The Nation's history that Guttenplan's article either skipped or passed over quickly, I should note that the book dives much deeper into those details. While it is no more sympathetic to the classical liberalism of The Nation's founding editor E.L. Godkin than the article was, the book explores his views with a lot more nuance. And though the anniversary issue pretty much ignored the nearly-two-decade period that came after Godkin left the magazine and before Oswald Garrison Villard took it over and moved it to the left—a time when the mag was basically a culturally conservative supplement to the New-York Post—Guttenplan here devotes several pages to the topic, at one point quoting H.L. Mencken's comment that the Nation of this era was "perhaps the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world."

More importantly, the book-long version of Guttenplan's history has much more to say about Villard's falling out with Freda Kirchwey, the magazine's editor from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. Villard stuck around as a columnist for several years after stepping down as editor, but he exited during the run-up to World War II; his final column reiterated not just his opposition to all war but his fear that the magazine was "embracing for the purpose of saving our democracy the very evils certain to destroy it." While I doubt that Guttenplan agrees with Villard about the war, his book offers plenty of evidence that on the second point, Villard was correct: In the early and mid '40s, Kirchwey's weekly called for censorship of "the treason press," offered what Guttenplan calls only a "mild demurral" to the internment of Japanese Americans, scolded Gandhi for picking the wrong time to push for Indian independence, and celebrated the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a striking contrast with the Villard-era Nation's genuinely risky stands for civil liberties during World War I. (The magazine itself was censored temporarily in 1918, when the Post Office seized an issue because the government disliked an editorial in it. After the ban was lifted, Villard wrote the responsible official to thank him for the "splendid advertisement.")

The book has plenty of fun trivia too. (My favorite is the fact that in 1964, the magazine published a muckraking story by the young Patrick J. Buchanan.) Guttenplan gets too hagiographic for my taste when he writes about the journal's current incarnation, but I suppose that's inevitable for an officially sanctioned anniversary product. His book is still worth a look.