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.
In 1976, when I arrived at The Nation, America was not booming. The aftermath of the 1960s, the Carter/Reagan years, were an era of bad faith and bad feeling, of low cultural energy, of pessimism on the disintegrating left. In this climate, you would expect the magazine’s arts section to fight the power by becoming the agitprop master of ceremonies for our unpopular front. That did not strike me as a very inviting road to take.
But I might have had to take it were it not for The Nation’s long tradition of allowing its Books and the Arts section an independence almost unique in journalism—and I think I can say that with some authority, having been around the block in magazineland since then. In its 150-year history, the arts section has occasionally been to the left of the front of the magazine, more often to its right and sometimes, as in my tenure, deliberately all over the place. It speaks to the decency of a publication often accused of hewing to a hard line that it allows this freedom. And in my case, it speaks also to Victor Navasky’s editorship, which was not so much “wily”—Calvin Trillin’s word—as liberal.
But before we get to those years, I should explain that there was a “trickle-down” effect of editorial independence—to use the annoying Reaganite term of that era. What I was given in terms of freedom I bestowed in turn on critics and reviewers, knowing that I was bound to disagree with them from time to time. That was not the hard part. The hard part, the sometimes regrettable part, came in those instances when a writer tested our commitment to the First Amendment with opinions bound to wound our friends, fellow editors and the magazine’s supporters. I think I can be forgiven for being unwilling to recount any of those instances here. They were remarkably painful, and the slim satisfaction of sticking to principle did not seem worth it. One afternoon, as I was readying for publication a particularly severe review of a book by a writer who was also a friend, the phone rang. It was Chris Calhoun, our advertising director. “You sound like you’re in hell sitting on a bench next to Roy Cohn,” he said. It could be like that sometimes.
But occasionally, as with Mary Summers’s review detailing Jesse Jackson’s political and personal shortcomings—which appeared just before the magazine endorsed him in the Democratic presidential primary—our discomfort seemed to me a small price to pay for a healthy shot of candor. Summers’s article created a difficult moment in the office, but we survived it, and in my view the magazine was the better for that.