THE SCHOLAR AT 75: An Educated GuessPrint
Who knew that mixing the intelligent and the idiosyncratic would yield a long life for a certain small quarterly?
By Ted Widmer
December 1, 2006
I greet you on the re-commencement of our literary year. Our anniversary is one of hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”
“Prologue” seems too ordinary a word for a magazine as weighty as The American Scholar, even weightier on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.
The long history of magazines in the United States stretches back to February 13, 1741, when the well-named American Magazine was launched at Philadelphia, three days before Benjamin Franklin, uncharacteristically late, came out with our second-oldest, his General Magazine. Since then, thousands of new periodicals have been launched with great aplomb, on topics ranging from dog-grooming to philately to celebrity hairdos. Also since then, the same thousands, give or take a few, have fallen right back to earth (aplomb, or “perpendicularity,” comes from the French word for lead).
It would have been hard to find a worse moment to launch a new magazine than January 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. Yet that was the exact moment when the first issues of a new quarterly, The American Scholar, began to roll off the Scribner presses. Nor would it be a simple matter to find a topic less likely to inspire enthusiasm than the one chosen at precisely that moment by the backers of the new venture. The magazine was designed to serve six grand objectives:
- The promotion in America of liberal scholarship.
- Medium for scholars and all persons who are interested in intellectual pursuits, higher learning, and the cultural development of America.
- A synthesis of the arts and sciences essential to liberal education and a guiding philosophy of life.
- An esprit de corps among the educated.
- The scholar’s responsibility for major social tendencies.
- A whole diet for the whole mind.
Could anything be more boring?
Yet here we are, 75 years after the fact, blinking our eyes in amazement at the survival of an infant who sprang to life with so many more exciting arrivals of 1932: FDR, the New Deal, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to name a few.
How did this miracle happen? Frankly, it defies logic, common sense, and everything else the readership values. But the Scholar has been blessed with good friends throughout its existence and with strong and gifted people at the helm. There have been five editors and two interim editors: William A. Shimer (1932–43), Marjorie Hope Nicholson (1943–44), Hiram Haydn (1944–73), Peter Gay (1974), Joseph Epstein (1974–98), Anne Fadiman (1998–2004), Robert Wilson (2004–present). At the request of editor number seven, I read the entire run of the magazine, in order to submit the following report, divided into three 25-year slices. It took up more than 11 feet of space, sandwiched between American Scandinavian Review and American Swedish Weekly in the Brown University Library. In so doing, I have tried to live up to one of Emerson’s more obscure pronouncements: “Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out.”
CHAPTER ONE (1932–1957)
I accept the topic which not only usage, but the nature of our
association, seem to prescribe to this day,—the AMERICAN SCHOLAR.
—Emerson, “The American Scholar”
The first 25 years defined the magazine forever. DNA is already in place at conception, and the Scholar was defined well before the first copy was issued. That DNA still shapes it today. The 21st-century American Scholar might startle the founders in small ways, but they would recognize it as kin. When the magazine reached 10 years in 1942—an unimaginable mile- stone in 1932—the editors remembered their early deliberations with all of the zeal of James Madison consulting his journal of the Constitutional Convention to establish Original Intent. In one of the very rare uses of photography in the magazine in its first 73 years, the original “Editors and Advisers” were shown in all of their glory, like tiny baseball cards, with small essays on each person who helped usher the publication into existence. It was perhaps too hopeful to suggest, as the 1942 Scholar did, that “the verbatim record of their witty and incisive discussion of times and tendencies, past and future, and of policies, subjects and authors will some day bring joy to more than one biographer and historian”—although the sentence becomes true if the words “more than” are replaced with “exactly.”
The primordial issue (vol. 1, no. 1) was a more academic publication than its descendants. A green cover with black type announced “The American Scholar” without fanfare. The paper was of good quality; the size (7 x 10 inches) eminently decent, the number of pages (128) respectable without appearing presumptuous. Like a smaller, antediluvian Chronicle of Higher Education, the early Scholar offered shoptalk for people employed at the nation’s universities and colleges. Instead of asking if God was dead, a piece posed the question: “Is God Emeritus?”
That and other clues left no doubt that this was the house organ of a parent organization, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded in 1776 (one gets the impression that PBK considered the Declaration of Independence the second most important event of that year). The faint jangling of keys was audible throughout the magazine, from the large PBK logo on the first page to the back page, with its ad for the L. G. Balfour Company of Attleboro, Massachusetts, “Sole Official Jewelers to PBK,” purveyors of high school rings and assorted academic trinkets. A rather pedantic classification scheme identified contributors as either PBK or not, like an entomologist separating drones from worker bees. Of 17 articles in the first issue, 14 were either by or about PBK members, a whopping 82 percent! On a list of recent titles of interest, a book about Teddy Roosevelt was filed under “Theodore Roosevelt, Biography of (PBK Harvard 1880).”
But despite some pedantry, some snobbery, and some Babbittry, there was a spark in these early pages that augured well for the future. It took vision and a small dose of lunacy to build anything in the 1930s, and the magazine’s founders—like those who built Rockefeller Center between 1929 and 1934—were no shrinking violets. They were men and women of ambition looking to start something better than the magazine trash they all sifted through on a regular basis. Deeply connected, they came from The New York Times, major publishing houses, Columbia University and other schools, and from a centrist tradition engaged with the intellectual issues of the times but committed neither to the overthrow of the standing order nor to the knee-jerk preservation of it.
The name, too, suggests something more than the academic run-of-the-mill: a stab at Emersonian vitality, a willingness to direct thought into new channels. Of course, it was also an insider’s nudge, because Emerson gave his famous speech of that name before a Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837. Emerson’s ghost, still very much alive in 1932 (the issue opened with a handsome woodcut of the Sage of Concord), represented exactly the paradox of the Scholar in these early years. It was striving earnestly after something new, and finding it on occasion, but it often defined excellence through the New England worldview that Emerson had tried to distance himself from, and it treated Emerson and his ilk with a filiopietism that they would have scoffed at. One of the early contributors, John Dewey, was 73 years old in 1932—old enough to have known Emerson. In these tentative first years, the old and the new commingled. A bold article on the need to try new economic systems might be followed by a forbidding print of Lucretia Mott (vol. 2, no. 1) almost designed to scare away readers. A hotheaded attack on inequity would inevitably be cooled down by an essay on “Man’s Value and Destiny: Moral Atheism in Spinoza.” In the spring of 1934, the Scholar had not one but three articles on Grover Cleveland! You have to love their confidence.
If there was a signature theme for the magazine in these years, it was intellectual freedom, broadly defined to include both unfair dismissals at U.S. universities and the chilling rise of anti-intellectualism around the world. There were some protests against anti-Semitism and aggressive attacks on the Nazis from a young Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote with a more electric prose style than the average Scholar contributor. But there was little on the Spanish civil war, Japanese aggression, Mussolini, or Stalin. It is, of course, unfair to read the past with perfect hindsight and wonder why intelligent men and women could not see the future more clearly. There were occasional alarms about other types of apocalypse—the impending socialist revolution; a coming clash of civilizations with the Islamic world (written in 1935, about six decades before those phrases echoed down the hallways of Beltway think tanks). But outside of Niebuhr, it would be hard to find a vivid sense of the conflagration that was actually about to happen.
The Scholar was also obtuse about the wider culture it sprang from. It was nowhere near as interested in bottom feeding as, say, H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury. When one ponders the hurricane force of American culture 70 years ago, one thinks instantly of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Gene Krupa, Walt Disney, Bette Davis, Jimmy Cagney, Orson Welles, S. J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers, Nathanael West, and dozens of their contemporaries. All were invisible in The American Scholar. Mickey Mouse, though, made one appearance (1939), in what must have seemed a hilarious joke to the readership, holding a Phi Beta Kappa key.
The magazine’s music coverage was worse, if possible. In an attempt at trendiness, the editors asked Aaron Copland to assemble a list of must-have phonograph records. He came up with an unimaginative compilation of mostly classical works (he allowed one Gershwin).
In short, the Scholar, like all periodicals of its time, was deeply Caucasian. Sometimes this was merely the ignorance with which Americans of that time interpreted our African heritage. Sometimes it was worse than ignorance. A piece called “Native Elements in American Music” painfully explained that Stephen Foster’s music “may have been written to describe a shiftless type of Negro” and identified jazz as “a Jewish interpretation of the Negro.”
There was always something a little cautious about the magazine, perhaps because of its sponsorship, or the moderation of its editors, or simply because circulation was precarious and the readership found moderation comfortable. But once in a while the magazine rose above its safe instincts and said something profound about race in America, or poverty, or the other hard issues that bedeviled us then as now. The anthropologist Melville Herskovits wrote a powerful piece in 1939 calling for better research into Black America’s origins. W. E. B. Du Bois contributed a moving essay on African-American science later the same year.
If the Scholar was static in some ways, it was positively electrifying in others. I’m talking about color again, but this time I mean the color of the magazine. For reasons I still cannot fathom, the Scholar experimented with a number of bright pastels in its first 25 years. As in extremely bright. In the winter of 1935, in what we remember as a deeply black-and-white period of our history, the Scholar debuted an incandescent orange-red cover, quite attractive even in its faded condition. Later years would offer lime green, robin’s egg blue, and other variants.
Another strong point for the Scholar was its willingness to go far afield of what ordinary publications would cover. The flip side of its occasional obliviousness to news was the Scholar’s deep interest in nonnews— an anti-trendiness that has paradoxically enlivened the magazine throughout its history. In the early years, after the PBK spell had worn off, one might encounter an essay on medicines that come from toads, or the history of Russian America, or “The Evolution of Eyes” by a Duluth ophthalmologist. Sometimes it was simply a detail inside a story that would jump out. A story on the University of Padua mentioned a small, ivorylike item on display in an old corridor, with a sign attached: “I am the fifth vertebra of Galileo Galilei: I helped his neck to bend.” Emerson, a legendary sentence writer, would have appreciated that one.
When World War II finally broke out, the Scholar took it with its usual equanimity. Inside the old issues, it is sometimes hard to tell that a disruption has occurred. In the summer of 1944, as Allied troops raced across France, the lead story was “On the Talk of Samuel Johnson and His Friends.” But the magazine did take the important step of urging Americans to maintain democratic standards while treating aliens inside our borders.
The Scholar’s 10th anniversary occurred at a moment nearly as inopportune as its founding—1942, in some of the darkest moments of the war, when few Americans were feeling particularly Emersonian. But this may have been the most enthusiastically celebrated anniversary in the magazine’s history. Although the editors confessed that there were only 6,000 subscribers, they wrote with pride of their survival against long odds and their high hopes for the future; they wrote of reducing the academic focus of the early years and called instead for “a middle way between lightness and learning.”
The magazine did not change its appearance much in 1945, the year the United States found itself in the surprising position of global preeminence. But the gray moral tones of the postwar universe suited the Scholar nicely. Going back to its origins, the little magazine again rose to defend free speech, and from 1945 to 1955 or so it was an eloquent voice for the intellectual independence that its founders had hoped to articulate. At the height of McCarthyism, in the early 1950s, a number of brave editorials and articles left no doubt about where The American Scholar stood.
The contributing editors during this period were quite exceptional. Genuine cold warriors were suddenly in the magazine’s midst, including Sumner Welles, who served on the board of editors and penned a lead article in the Spring 1946 issue on the United Nations. Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of the new word genocide, wrote an important definition of his idea in the same issue. Other writers included Paul Robeson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Van Wyck Brooks, Richard Hofstadter, Archibald MacLeish, Alain Locke, to name only a few on a very long and eclectic list. Albert Einstein wrote a completely unreadable piece for the Scholar, “On the ‘Cosmologic Problem,’” in 1945. Unfortunately, Mr. Genius made a mistake and had to write the following letter in the next issue, reprinted in its entirety:
The Remark on page 149 concerning the case of vanishing density (G = o) is based on an error in calculation. In reality the space mentioned is Euclidean and hence no argument in favor of the closedness of space can be deduced from it. Otherwise this oversight does not influence the contents of the paper.
What a cutup!
The Scholar efficiently conveyed the exuberance of those postbellum years—both the existential terror of the nuclear age and the hedonism that offered a weird counterpoint to Armageddon. There were new voices on the scene, new devices to buy, and an unlimited interest in America’s history, simply because the United States was finally as important as it had always assumed itself to be.
Americans hungered for geographical knowledge in keeping with their new global responsibilities. They were also discoverng the geography of their own bodies—perhaps the last terra incognita left in the New World. The hottest illustration in the history of the Scholar (an easy category to dominate) was an image of Wonder Woman smashing the chains of prejudice in the Winter 1944–45 issue. Sex exploded like atomic energy in the years following the war, and the Kinsey reports generated much chatter in the heretofore sexless pages of the magazine. A long essay in defense of Kinsey in 1948 shocked readers, not only by asserting that “mouth-genital caress” is preferred by some socioeconomic groups over others, but by suggesting it existed at all.
Like every high-water mark, the 1950s also conveyed the sense of a tide that was turning. Dazed by our rerun culture, we remember the decade as a flush time for Americans, but the gauzy filter of nostalgia conceals how difficult a time it could be for academics. Beneath the surface deceptions of tailfins and coonskin hats lay a bewildering new underworld of hostility to teachers, writers, and thinkers. It began, perhaps, with Hiroshima, the most important intellectual achievement of the 20th century. Nothing made the scholar more relevant, or more culpable.
This vulnerability was sensed by a series of politicians who preyed on intellectuals, some of whom had trafficked in Communism in the 1930s, and then as now a soft target for the opportunistic. Richard Nixon, the vice presidential candidate in 1952, scored points when he accused Adlai Stevenson of holding “a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.” Senator Joseph McCarthy’s every utterance was laced with cynicism toward the idea of well-trained experts offering studied opinions on the great ideas of the day—the core idea of the Scholar. One of his cruelest pursuits was the auto-da-fé he launched against Professor Owen Lattimore, the renowned China expert.
Another setback came from the failure of Stevenson, the great political champion of the universitariat. Eloquent, witty, and famously eggheaded, Stevenson spoke to the Scholar’s readership as no other candidate had. Academics were shocked—shocked!—when Ike trounced Adlai twice in a row, in 1952 and 1956. Afterward, a writer in the Scholar tried to explain away his disappointment with the idiotic comment that “thoughtful people” could feel “quiet satisfaction” that such a good man had run at all, a fact “of more importance than the outcome of the election.”
Hofstadter, in one of many incisive pieces he gave to the magazine, cut to the heart of the growing gulf between the intellectual and the public: “When intellectuals touch upon power, they seem to have two primary complaints: the first is that power disregards the counsels of intellect, that intellect is shut off from access to power; the second is that intellect, having drawn too close to power, has been corrupted, has sold out. This is not as funny as it may seem.”
Although the Scholar tried in some ways to be au courant with new ideas, there was one phenomenally important invention of the midcentury that the editors not only ignored, but actively resisted—television. In issue after issue, the Scholar team took potshots at the embodiment and cause of their futility, calling for government control of the new poison in their midst. There is no evidence that television ever paid the slightest heed to these urbane and well-written critiques.
These dyspeptic expressions of cultural dissonance point to a fairly obvious problem for The American Scholar as time and the Eisenhower era lurched forward. The Young Turks of the 1930s were 20 years older in the 1950s. It would be hard to ask for a more distinguished group of writers than the ones who had lifted the Scholar to prominence. But by 1956, they had stayed at the table a long time.
Another dignified anniversary was celebrated in 1956, but the tone was muted compared to the 10th, and there was no longer a vivid sense that the magazine’s survival constituted a miracle worthy of beatification. The Scholar was now simply a part of the landscape, not quite venerable, but deeply rooted.
CHAPTER TWO (1957–1982)
The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them
facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation.
—Emerson, “The American Scholar”
In the 25th anniversary issue, Margaret Mead wrote a piece for The American Scholar in which she turned her cold anthropological eye to America’s youth, and found a distressing conformity everywhere she looked. Within a decade, that problem would invert itself, as younger American readers rebelled against an Establishment that, for better or worse, included the Scholar. That’s the danger of anthropology—you have to be careful the natives don’t turn the binoculars around and stare at you.
The late ’50s were flush times for the Scholar. The magazine was fat, revenues were high, and readers became used to the slightly discordant sight of full-page ads for Bell Telephone, General Motors, and General Electric. The list of subscribers climbed to 40,000, and contributors and editors alike were drawn from the nation’s intellectual elite. The discourse was on a very high plane and included cold warriors like George Kennan; great historians (Perry Miller, C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter); sociologists (David Riesman), and all manner of people who defied easy description.
These swirling currents were accelerated by the centrifuge of the Kennedy presidency, which temporarily arrested the intellectual decline of the 1950s and gave something to the academic world that it has never had before or since: sexiness. It may be true that some elites looked down their nose at the new president, who, unlike Teddy Roosevelt, did not make Phi Beta Kappa. But for most academics this was a Golden Age, inspired as much by the president’s evident passion for ideas as his youth and charisma. The Scholar panted that the new president “takes printer’s ink for breakfast” and exulted that to be “intellectual” was “the latest style in American success.”
The three short Kennedy years were busy ones at the Scholar. One issue, in the fall of 1961, was especially exciting. Though a 30th anniversary is not usually very important (nor was 1961, in fact, the 30th), the issue offered an extraordinary range of content under the heading “The Changing American Scene.” Much of this issue, in fact, was devoted to Kennedy, with analyses of the new administration, a present-tense kind of orientation that had rarely been felt in the Scholar’s pages before. A large section at the back included a who’s who of top thinkers reflecting on their favorite books, ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt and W. E. B. Du Bois of the old generations to Gore Vidal and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of the new. The Scholar was erudite and accessible, incisive and playful at the same time.
What may have been the greatest poem in the long history of the Scholar occurred inadvertently in 1962, in the middle of an essay about the sun by the great astronomer Harlow Shapley:
What is the sun? Gas.
How did it come about? Gravitational attraction.
What is its surface temperature? 10,000°F.
What is its mass? 2 x 1027 tons.
What keeps it shining? E = mc2
What is its ultimate destiny? Extinction.
Anything we can do about it? No!
But Kennedy’s assassination brought a full stop to this whimsy. The assassination was not exactly announced in the magazine—news rarely was—but a poem expressed melancholy, and the issues of 1964 and after feel immensely older. The Scholar had never completely abandoned its original generation—a new piece by George Santayana ran in 1964! Now the magazine’s age crept up on it, quickly and mercilessly.
Vietnam was moderately opposed by the Scholar’s Reasonable Old Men, but moderate opposition was becoming unfashionable to both sides. Television was more powerful than ever. Worse, new academics were achieving celebrity simply by saying that television was powerful. One of the most confusing articles in the history of the Scholar may have been Marshall McLuhan’s rambling attempt to explain his new theories about mass communication; he recommended both LSD and Finnegans Wake as vehicles for achieving “a multidimensional and multisensuous character of discovery” (adding in a parenthesis, “Perhaps Finnegan would be safer, and also more rewarding”).
Like a sinking sailor grabbing at a bowline, the Scholar made a few attempts to right itself. It still had the power to attract new voices: Hannah Arendt, Robert Coles, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Joan Didion all appeared in its pages in the ’60s. In 1965, Anthony Burgess began to send brilliant reviews from London. A contest for new writers in 1967 was won by a young Alice Walker.
But each time the Scholar tried to address the generation gap, it merely confirmed it. The Spring 1966 issue featured exhausted pieces on “The Electronic Revolution,” including a piece on “Electronic Music and Musical Newness” that failed to mention rock and roll (the Scholar hated it from its appearance). A year later, at the end of the Summer of Love, the Beatles were compared to “the bacchic frenzy of certain ancient Greek youths and maidens.” The writer might as well have been an ancient Greek. Some interesting essays here and there compared the New Left to the Old Left. But just when the magazine devoted some resources to the counterculture in a major issue on “Youth 1967: The Challenge of Change,” it followed up with a lead story in the next issue on “The Problem of Tax Loopholes.”
One of the reasons Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 was because he more or less promised to terminate the 1960s—a promise he fulfilled. One suspects that more than a few of the Scholar’s readers were relieved. But the 1970s brought different kinds of tremors, chief among them being Nixon’s self-immolation. The magazine spilled some ink over Watergate, but it covered the great issues of intellectual freedom that preceded Watergate— the Pentagon Papers, the bugging of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychologist’s office, and the enemies list—less than one might have expected.
The magazine was not exactly bad—there were still great essays, year after year. Like an old friend, it kept coming to pay its respects. But it lacked the urgency of the Cold War period, when McCarthy stalked the land spewing venom against intellectuals, and it spent less time with great counterintuitive stories—for example, the story that nearly all p1eriodicals missed, the rise of conservatism inside the carapace of these seemingly liberal years.
When it arrived in 1982, the 50th anniversary was restrained. The lead editorial asked “Has the Future a Future?” It was becoming hard to tell.
CHAPTER THREE (1982–2007)
Life is our dictionary.
—Emerson, “The American Scholar”
The American Scholar entered the Age of MTV and Big Hair with no disruption or acknowledgment that it was entering a new age—or even that time moves forward. Following the 50th anniversary, the magazine continued down its idiosyncratic path, cultivating erudite and witty essays on things read and thought. Here a bit of Jacques Barzun, there a glimpse of Oscar Handlin, and over in this aisle Alfred Kazin. A new kind of article became increasingly common—the celebration of an eminent intellectual, recently deceased. Industry insiders might have warned against the cultivation of an aging demographic whose subscribing days were numbered.
Another tendency—perhaps biological as well—manifested itself in the 1980s. There was a rightward tilt to what had once been a leftward tilting publication—although perhaps leeward is a better word, given that the Scholar has generally avoided the prevailing political winds. Still, there was a pronounced concentration of voices from the emerging world that we now know as neoconservative, among them Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol, Bernard Lewis, and Dinesh D’Souza. Many of the writers in the Scholar’s stable were never conservative. But as they aged, the old warriors of the ’40s and ’50s embraced a palpable cultural conservatism. Their crotchety prose jibed well with the Scholar’s identity as a high-quality publication above trends. But it surprises, and impresses, to see that an intellectual journal survived the Reagan era while embracing doctrines at odds with what 98 percent of intellectuals think about politics.
Reagan was followed by Bush and then Clinton; the Scholar remained immutable. Clinton was in fact the first president born after the founding of the magazine. But the two were hardly linked; characteristically, the Scholar was completely out of touch with the rest of the American media, and at the end of 1998, it could truthfully claim to be the only magazine in America that had not published the words Monica Lewinsky—until that point, that is.
But despite that willful indifference to the temporary, 1998 turned out to be a big year for the magazine. It altered its appearance dramatically, both within and without, when Anne Fadiman inherited the editorial mantle that year. As usual, one has to go to the end of an editor’s tenure (to the farewell letter) rather than to its beginning to get at the thinking behind the change, but it’s clear that Fadiman wanted to awaken the Scholar and reach new readers—no less crotchety, perhaps, but younger and more varied.
Suddenly, there was a fountain pen hovering over the cover, and graphics—graphics!—improving the appearance of the pieces. And new contributors were everywhere: Nicholson Baker, Catharine Stimpson, Adam Hochschild, Ellen Ullman, Thomas Mallon, Pico Iyer, Adam Goodheart, Stacy Schiff. In many ways, it was a brave new world—a younger touch, a more tangible female presence, delightfully eccentric pieces that revealed— and reveled in—the inner Victorian weirdness that lurks inside all collectors of information.
But in other ways, this new Scholar was not so out of keeping with the best traditions of the magazine: the pastel colors, and the occasional humor of the old days, and the sense of good friends writing for each other. A new emphasis on keeping journals and gathering odd bits of knowledge also echoed some features from very early issues (which had a different quote on every masthead). Clearly, the new Scholar was more of a writer’s place than it had been.
For a historian, it goes against nature to praise living authors, or even to mention them. But it’s evident that this was a very good time. The Scholar began going to award ceremonies for magazines and bested publications with much larger circulations. Pieces that appeared in its pages continued to develop into significant books. Current events were fair game—a lovely issue was devoted to writers’ reactions to 9/11. And finally, nearly half a century after the first single by Elvis Presley, the Scholar had its first great rock piece when David Michaelis wrote an appreciation of the lyrics from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—now so old an artifact that he was able to present it under the rubric “Rereading.”
The careful study of issue after issue of a magazine begins to compress time, and with a magazine of strong internal continuity, as this one surely is, it becomes easy to lose sense of the quotidian. But even for a periodical as joyfully out of it as the Scholar has often been, there is no escaping the truth that everything is temporary in the magazine business. And so the Fadiman era turned out to be. In her final editorial, in the Autumn 2004 issue, she explained that “conflicting managerial styles on the publishing and editorial sides of the magazine” had led to her dismissal.
A new editor was brought in, one with a deep respect for the publication’s history, as well as a desire to follow the Emersonian precedent and shake things up a bit. Those who give awards to magazines still recognize the efforts of the Scholar’s staff in the editorial offices off Dupont Circle. And recent issues of the Scholar—including, I hope, the one in your hands—continue to offer an appealing combination of past and present, along with some things that are neither.
Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation
for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.
—Emerson, “The American Scholar”
In 2007, The American Scholar turns a surprisingly spry 75 years old. It is read and loved, if not by millions, then by a number that would have shocked the founders—about 32,000 at the last reckoning. The magazine’s strengths are clear. It takes on topics that no one else will go near. It provides young and old with a forum to express highly individual thoughts that have little to do with media obsessions. It offers particular refuge to the essay—a form of writing that goes back past Emerson to Montaigne, the ancestor of skeptics everywhere—and breathes life to this day.
Will there be a 100th anniversary? All indications from the publishing industry suggest that content is declining, paper is vanishing, and erudite sexless commentary is especially suicidal. Sound bites are shrinking, attention spans narrowing, and public language is degraded 24/7, from the vapid ad slogan to the lying speech to the vowelless text message. The ultimate paradox of our instantaneous, borderless world may be that we have achieved a perfect system of communication only to discover that we have nothing to say.
In other words, all of the odds are stacked against the Scholar going into the next 25 years. What a perfect place to be! Into this next quarter, the little quarterly can go happily, small enough to fly below the enemy radar, building meaning and nuance through close observation, elevating the particular over the general, and insisting that words do have consequences.
Let us close with a bit of scripture. Emerson has lost none of his bite. “Wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God.”
See you at the centennial.
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.
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