After winter, famously, spring: it was perhaps in such a spirit that The Nation devoted five pages of its April 12, 1919, issue to “The Pick of the Spring Books.” The redirection of natural and intellectual resources to World War I—not to mention the Sedition Act’s criminalization of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States”—had slackened the operations of healthy discourse during the war years, and The Nation, newly under the editorship of the crusading liberal Oswald Garrison Villard, was eager to participate in the regeneration of one. Though published as a merely promotional service and not a critical endeavor, the list, which would appear every year through 1933, is nonetheless an intriguing window onto an era: “The American Language. By H.L. Mencken. Knopf. $4.”
In 1950, The Nation published its first issue specifically devoted to “Spring Books.” It positively, if not surprisingly, screams 1950, in everything from its subjects to its reviewers to its poetry to its advertisements, but much of it also speaks to interests and concerns still with us today.
To lead things off, the splendidly named poet and critic Rolfe Humphries began a two-part essay on what was wrong with writers’ conferences. It seems curiously relevant in 2014, amid endless debate over Iowa, the MFA/NYC etc. “Too many of those who come,” Humphries scowled, “list their achievements, in the Conference Who’s Who, as ‘Housewife; interests general,’ or point with pride to their little book of verse, called ‘Flinging Piquant Whimsies,’ published by one of the more notorious vanity houses.
Too many are borderline psychopathic cases, whether deteriorating or convalescent; too many are not really serious about going to the trouble it takes to become writers. Too few have talent. Too many scheme in advance, doting on it later, for the opportunity of calling a writer by his first name, and getting his intimate inscription on the flyleaf of a book they will never read…. University administrations, and the Department of English, are coldly tolerant, or secretly hostile and suspicious; towns resent the intrusion of the invaders of Bohemia, whose private lives are probably not all they should be. The specter of economic determinism rears its ugly head…
But all that said, Humphries argued that those faults “lie on the surface; the virtues are deeper down.”
At a Writers’ Conference the writer is brought together, in a social way, with his function. The primary function of a writer is, of course, to write. A solitary and lonesome business; we sometimes tend, I think to make it a secret and furtive one. Writers are imperfectly gregarious: they need to, and do, meet other people, as often as not at literary parties. They need to, and do, talk shop with each other. But in all this there is something a little defensive, a little exclusive; the sociability is that of the occupants of a beleaguered city, or—this is exaggerating—that of the inmates of the cells of the condemned. There is the danger that inhabitants of cells, in order not to think of themselves as the condemned, will think of themselves as the elect: so we get cenacles, cults, coteries. What a Writers’ Conference does is offer the writer, in however limited and temporary a fashion, a community, where he has a position of responsibility, where he has status and dignity.
As for the central and still hotly debated question of whether it is possible to teach someone to write, Humphries was ambivalent, claiming he had “always maintained that no, of course, they could not, it would be arrogant to make such assumptions.” But he seemed to have moderated that position more recently, saying that with the right combination of “a little talent,” confidence in the teacher, and the teacher’s own ability, it would happen: “These requirements met, my word for it, you will get from your students work that will surpass anything they have done before, will surprise and delight student and teacher alike.” The jury assigned to that question, however, remains out, haggard and graying in its quarters.
Appearing next to Humphries’s essay like an illustration of what proper writing could be, W.H. Auden’s poem “Ischia,” named for the island in the Gulf of Naples to which the poet made his summer retreat from 1948–57, ran down one page and onto the next.
Dearest to each his birthplace; but to recall a green
Valley where mushrooms fatten in the summer nights
And silvered willows copy
The circumflexions of the stream
Is not my gladness today: I am presently moved
By sun-drenched Parthenopeia, my thanks are for you
Ischia, to whom a fair wind has
Brought me rejoicing with dear friends
From gross productive cities. How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
Things and men in perspective
Under your uniform light.
Auden’s practice during those years was to write poetry in the summer in Europe and prose in the winter in New York. The Nation published both: just a week before the “Spring Books” issue currently under inspection, Auden had reviewed the first English translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s memoir of the Revolution of 1848. “In so far as we are bodies,” Auden wrote, “we are or ought to be revolutionaries; in so far, however, as we are also souls and minds, we are or ought to be counter-revolutionaries, and in our struggle, the books of De Tocqueville belong, together with Thucydides, the Seventh Epistle of Plato, and the plays of Shakespeare, in the small group of the indispensable.” So, too, it scarcely needs to be said—if we accept the premise—the works of Auden, both those in The Nation and those sadly not.
One can imagine a reader of The Nation’s 1950 “Spring Books” issue smiling at the sight, on the very next page, of an article titled “America: Inventory and Appraisal” by one Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., much the same way a reader of this week’s issue—ahem, this reader—might feel vaguely inwardly giddy before digging into William Deresiewicz’s consideration of the novelist-cum-stadium-rock-sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s the eternally similar calculation behind these combinations of writer and subject that connects a magazine’s past to its present and defines the pleasures of both magazine reading and archives digging.
Schlesinger at this time was associate professor of history at Harvard and already a few years removed from both his blockbuster The Age of Jackson (1945) and his apprenticeship with the Office of Strategic Services, wartime precursor to the CIA. He had been reviewing books for The Nation on an almost weekly basis since early 1948, and was a member, though not yet national chairman, of the liberal anti-Communist group, Americans for Democratic Action. So what did Schlesinger have to say on the subject of “America: Inventory and Appraisal”?
The essay was a review of The American Mind, by Henry Steele Commager, a historian of American liberalism who fancied his engagement with the public and sought to help construct, not merely interpret, his subject. When Commager died in 1998, Schlesinger told The New York Times he brought to history an “analytical keenness, grace and lucidity of expression, and a disciplined passion for the integrity and hope of the democratic experience.” For his book, a half-century earlier, Schlesinger mostly had praise, and in the following passage brings the story up to date:
“The American Mind” ends on a mid-century note of ambiguity. American civilization was by 1950 urban but not urbane, Professor Commager finds. People never had so much leisure before; yet they have never been so hurried. Women had been emancipated
—by 1950, didn’t you know?—
and technology had altered the problems of living; yet one marriage out of four ended in divorce, “and nervous breakdowns became so common as to be almost unfashionable.” Mass education had conquered the nation, but it had not notably raised the levels of information or intelligence. The greater degree of centralization and organization had brought in its wake a terrifying demand for conformity.
Sounds rather like a civilization I know. But then on the other hand, there is the description in the same issue’s lead editorial to “Sketchy Joe McCarthy,” just then rising to influence, to whom there is fortunately not as of this writing any analogue today.
The advertisements from the April 22, 1950, issue are nearly as compelling as the reviews: in one, Viking promotes Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays he had “written—with steadily increasing influence—over the last decade,” with the promise that he “always addresses himself to the progressive mind, criticizing the liberal imagination from within the liberal camp.” On the following page, a Murray Hill-based outfit called the Four Continent Book Group announces that books of all kinds from the ussr just arrived! Selected for special notice is Problems of Foreign Policy by V.M. Molotov, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union. The figure of the typical Nation reader of April 1950 sharpens into view.
So much for our journey through The Nation’s 1950 “Spring Books” issue. It is, of course, a treasure chest, as would be later installments, like those of 1960—with Terry Southern’s essay on humor in existentialist fiction abutting Robert Lowell’s poem, “Heine Dying in Paris”—and of 1978, our first after a lapse of some years—with Columbia Journalism Review editor James Boylan’s review of four new leftist publications, including one called Mother Jones (of all things), next to an essay on poetry criticism by Robert Bly, next to a Pantheon ad for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, next to “Living in the House of Fiction” by E.L. Doctorow, a few pages before a review of Alfred Kazin’s New York Jew, and so on. As, perhaps, will be our issue dated June 2, 2014, containing, among other gems, Deresiewicz on Knausgaard, Alexandra Schwartz on Lydia Davis, Cathy Gere on intolerance, and so much more.
Read more of The Nation’s 2014 Spring Books special coverage
William Deresiewicz: Why Has My Struggle Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?
Alexandra Schwartz: Nobody Else Sounds Like Lydia Davis
Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk: What Was Democracy?
Cathy Gere: How Tolerant Should We Be of Intolerance?
Ricky D’Ambrose: Overculminated
Warren Breckman: What Is the Genus of Genius?
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From 1948 to 1951, The Nation ran a regular feature titled “Looking Backward,” which quoted, without comment, articles from fifty and seventy-five years earlier, when The Nation had often been, well, not quite as liberal as it later became. One week in 1948 the magazine stone-facedly quoted itself from 1873: “The Economist, which is rarely led astray, has a severe article on ‘commercial morality in America.’” It is in a similar humor that we today launch the “Back Issues” blog at TheNation.com, which will highlight articles from our past either relevant to topics and events of the day or irrelevant, but nonetheless interesting. From the Johnson impeachment to the Clinton impeachment, from the Paris Commune to Occupy Wall Street, from the old Jim Crow to the new, The Nation has been there, America’s oldest weekly magazine. The possibilities for exploration are practically endless. If you are curious how we covered anything at all—a war, a book, a speech, an invention, a subtle, barely perceptible change—write to me at [email protected] and I will see what we have. Subscribers can always access our impossibly rich archives at www.thenation.com/archive. Happy digging.