This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The United States and the Artist
Excerpted from the July 1, 1925 Issue
Can an artist exist and function freely in the United States? I think that he can do so if he knows where and how.
Certain hazards among us are to be conceded and survived, and if the artist is a Negro, his difficulties are needlessly greater in this country than in any other land in the civilized world. In general, [though,] the great United States handicap is none of these. It lies deeper and is not to be conquered by praise or fellowship or loaf and flask.
It is the lack in the national life of that indefinable control by the ordered, the accustomed, the mellow, the dreaming, the old. We know that we are without memories or echoes. Time is neither our asset nor our despair, but merely our hope. We are not the old world.
If I were an artist I should, in the light of my experience, stay here and confidently expect to do my work. I should know that from out the decays of Italy and the fatigues of France and the deepening impassivities of Great Britain one could look and imagine no more challenging artistic adventure than waits in this land with the unimaginative name. I should know that if in the ancient days I had gone questing for a field I should very likely have renounced everything in exchange for the terms of our unique life.
Art seeks to interpret the human spirit, naked in the universe, itself without nationality or academy or learned society or pension or past. If, then, an artist looks out upon that spirit hard enough, even in this land so lacking in the scrutiny, the pattern, or the label of the past, albeit not without something of the fragrance of the universal breath, it may be that he will forget the difficulties of keeping his covenant in the United States.
He will be in no illusion. He will know, sadly enough, that he has turned from the flowered debris, the resonant footsteps, the delicate somnolence, the emanations of genius and of ruin. And when our one hundred percenters come and tell him that he has the best country on earth to write in, he will emphatically demur. He will reply that there is no best country to write in. There are only an old world and a new. You make your choice.
Zona Gale (1874–1938), a novelist and playwright, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 1921.
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The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
June 23, 1926
The Mountain Has Changed
April 6, 2015
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Massachusetts the Murderer
Editorial (Oswald Garrison Villard)
Excerpted from the August 31, 1927 Issue
Massachusetts has taken two lives with a vindictiveness and brutality unsurpassed in our history. It has blotted out the fishmonger and the cobbler whose names are now known around the world, men who in the minds of multitudes will take for the moment their places with the Carpenter. In the face of a world-wide protest of never-equalled dimensions, in the face of appeals from lawyers and judges of the highest standing, and from the heads of foreign governments, Governor Fuller and his council have sent Sacco and Vanzetti to their deaths. Henceforth the world over, when men wish to describe what is worst in any judicial system, they will declare that it is akin to Massachusetts justice.
It avails not to say that errors occur in the administration of justice in every land. This case has gone home to people because the human heart is not yet so corroded that it can read of the extinction of these two men without a shock to the very roots of its belief in justice and humanity. When a State takes the irrevocable step under conditions like these it is idle to talk of a deterrent. It is the State that has harmed itself, that has dealt a blow to law and order. It has roused a dreadful doubt which will never be dissipated, unless by the discovery of new evidence on one side or the other, during the lifetime of multitudes now living. Rightly or wrongly, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti goes down to history with the witch hunting in Salem and, in modern times, with the execution of the anarchists in Chicago in 1886.
As for Sacco and Vanzetti, why grieve for them? Their long agony is over and they were philosophers and students of history enough to know that their sacrifice was worth more to the rationalizing of human life than would have been their release and their return to comparative obscurity. The very act which blots out the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti insures their eternity in any social history of the United States. Their bearing in the face of death, their shining courage, their resignation, the range of their spirits—these are deathless things, and somehow or other the memory of them goes on in the hearts of men. No one can say what it all means or foretell where this case will end. But this is clear: This legal murder in Boston will profoundly and adversely affect the international relations of the United States, and its moral standing throughout the world for at least a decade to come. Massachusetts has triumphantly killed an Italian fishmonger and an Italian cobbler, but she has blackened the name of the United States across all the seas.
Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949) first wrote for The Nation in 1894, when he was 21. In 1918, he became editor of The Nation, which he steered decisively to the left. Villard stepped down from the editorship in 1933 and published his memoir Fighting Years in 1939.
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What’s the Matter With ‘The Nation’?
Excerpted from the January 2, 1929 Issue
I am asked to write a piece on “What’s the matter with The Nation.” Once I lost a job for something like that, but easy come easy go. Accordingly, I hazard the opinion that The Nation suffers chiefly from the fact that it is edited by gentlemen and, almost I fear, by ladies. These are not terms of approbation in my vocabulary. I think a journal of opinion serves the community best if it is not too finicky. Naturally one hopes to find it honest. Few have ever questioned the sincerity of The Nation. Nor am I contending that the magazine should go completely yellow. But I would like more gusto. Often The Nation moves speedily enough in the defense of good causes, but there is no one on the board of control who gives me the impression of actually enjoying the business of fighting. I like to see a liberal journal get aroused to the point of yodeling into battle and of biting in the clinches when it gets there.
This has happened in the history of The Nation, but all too infrequently. The scheme of The Nation seems to be to intellectualize mankind closer to Utopia. That can’t be done. Even the most logical scheme for betterment gets nowhere unless it is expedited by the oil of emotion.
I am not contending that Mr. Villard and his associates constitute a bloodless crew. There’s marrow in them but over the entire organization there clings the malarial mist of good taste. Clearly it is his intention to be both radical and respectable. And this, I hold, is a difficult combination. In justice to The Nation it must be admitted that patriotic organizations here and there have regarded it as inflammable and as undoubtedly in the pay of Soviet Russia. But such compliments are not deserved. For the most part The Nation has spoken softly and carried a swagger stick.
The Nation is a liberal rather than a radical weekly. To me liberalism is by no means a burnt-out political philosophy, but all liberal leaders in America must face the charge that they have done little more than take radicalism and dilute it with cold water. My advice to The Nation would be to go ahead every now and then and be outrageously unfair and violent and decidedly ribald. No journal of protest is doing its job unless it gets barred from the mails once every so often.
Heywood Broun (1888–1939), a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, wrote a column for The Nation from 1927 to 1937. He also helped found the Newspaper Guild, which represents Nation employees to this day.
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If the Supreme Court Objects
Paul Y. Anderson
Excerpted from the July 19, 1933 Issue
It is often and pertinently asked what the United States Supreme Court will say about the constitutionality of some of the Roosevelt measures. Certainly there are at least three reactionary old men on that bench who would take profound satisfaction in standing by their plutocratic concepts of society if they knew the mob was battering at the door, and there may be more than three. That eventuality already has been seriously considered by persons interested in the success of the new deal. There are ways of meeting it. Congress could pass an act requiring members of the court to retire upon passing the age of retirement. That would remove two of the worst. It would also remove the best, Justice Brandeis, but that could be met by a provision enabling the President by executive order to extend the tenure of designated Justices who had reached the age limit. Or the size of the court could be increased by law to permit the appointment of additional Justices whose ideas developed subsequent to the year 1880. It has been done. If this reporter knows anything about the temper of the present Administration, it will never permit the whole economic structure of this country to be disrupted and demoralized because less than a half a dozen dyspeptic old men are determined to uphold precedents established before the invention of the telephone. As has often been made clear on these pages, I do not relish these encroachments of the executive upon the prerogatives of the other branches, but sometimes a condition arises which must be dealt with. The blame for such bad precedents properly rests on those who produce the conditions.
Paul Y. Anderson (1893–1938) won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Teapot Dome scandal for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He contributed pieces to The Nation from Washington roughly every two weeks from 1929 until his death.
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October 3, 1934
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The Tragedy of the Political Exiles
October 10, 1934
Emma’s Stateless Ghosts
April 6, 2015