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« Desiblogs | Main | "Home Movies" at TNR »

September 11, 2004


Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I second Fenster's recommendation of the Atlantic as essential reading, though I am a wee bit worried that it's moving downhill since Michael Kelly left us. I hadn't read the Atlantic in years before Kelly took it over in the late 1990s. He turned it into the most consistently rewarding general magazine in America. Kelly, you'll recall, died tragically in a Jeep accident after he'd gone to Iraq to cover the war. Since then, the magazine published Howell Raines's self-exculpation, which was almost enough to make me cancel my subscription. I couldn't fathom that this excellent magazine had seen fit to devote so much space to Raines when surely there are many worthy writers whose most cherished goal is to be published in the Atlantic. But I'm glad I didn't cancel. (As Fenster pointed out, website access requires that you subscribe to the print magazine. I know some people find that objectionable, and it makes the Atlantic non-bloggable, but just subscribe already. It's not expensive.) Every issue features several pieces I'm glad to have read. Though the magazine has a leftward tilt, it still publishes the two reigning right-wing jesters, P.J. O'Rourke and Mark Steyn. (Actually, it's unfair to call Steyn a "jester." He's hilariously funny, but also writes with moral clarity and moral verve, expressed with laugh-out-loud wit--a very rare ability for a writer to have mastered so well. That's not to say I agree with everything he says. But he's certainly bracing.) The magazine also regularly publishes Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing "apostate" (as the left thinks of him, though he is in fact way left for most right-wing tastes), often on non-political subjects about which he is excellent--as in his piece on Borges in the September issue (full review available here.) (Hitchens also wrote, for the London Review of Books, one of the best-informed reviews of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein that I read anywhere.)

But the writer I most look forward to reading in the Atlantic is its book reviewer Benjamin Schwarz. I don't know much about him, other than that he is also a leading left-wing commentator on foreign policy. But he's that odd sort of character: the professional book reviewer who seems ready and able to review just about any book out there. More than that, he's mastered a rare form: the capsule review. Writing book reviews is hard at any length. (Reviewers who don't find it hard are lousy reviewers.) But to do it well at capsule length is hardest of all. In the September Atlantic (I haven't gotten around to the October issue yet), Schwarz reviews four books: Jon Coleman's Savage, a Yale University Press book on Americans' savage treatment of wolves throughout the history of our westward expansion; Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell's in It?, on Hollywood actors; Imperial Hubris by that well-known author Anonymous (a supposedly high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official), on how we should be fighting Islamic terrorists (and how the war in Iraq is a diversion from said fighting); and a new book on Abelard and Helo´se. Schwarz's reviews made me want to buy and read the first three of these. (Fascinating as I find Abelard and Helo´se, Schwarz convinced me this new book isn't for me.) Again, I often disagree with Schwarz, but that's not the point. I don't want to agree with reviewers or critics. Schwarz does the best thing a reviewer can do: He helps me to decide which books to spend my money on.

(The best capsule reviews I've ever read are those by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their sadly out-of-print Catalogue of Crime.)

Also in the September Atlantic are some fascinating transcriptions, one of al-Qaeda e-mails found on a hard drive recovered in Kabul, the other of previously unreleased Nixon tapes. In the former, we find one terrorist admonishing another for having spent too much money on a new fax machine; in the latter we find this marvelous exchange between Nixon and Kissinger, from 1972:

RN: The Ivy League presidents? Oh, I won't let those sons of bitches ever in this White House again. Never. Never. None of them. They're finished. The Ivy League schools are finished. My God--

HK: I spent an hour with them, and it was revolting, because they have now embraced the program of the radicals. They said, in effect, they want us to cut off economic and military aid--

RN: And what happens?

HK: They said, have a Communist government in power in Saigon. I said, Have you considered that? I'm amazed that leaders of educational institutions should take such a position on a moral issue. The president of Harvard said, Look, there are a lot of immoral things happening in the world which we don't resist.

RN: So, Henry, look, I would not have had them in. So don't ever do that again. Don't ever have them in. They came out against us when it was tough. Don't ever have them in again. And when they [unintelligible]. Don't ever go to an Ivy League school again. Ever. Never, never, never.

Three quickies: First, it's a bit rich to find the meister of realpolitik taking anyone to task for his "position on a moral issue." Second, as for the rest of the tapes, it's so much more fun nowadays not to have to read that horrid New York Times-ian "expletive deleted," for Nixon was as expressively profane as any gangsta rapper; and third, Harvard's president in 1972 was Derek Bok.

Also in the Atlantic: Corby Kummer, one of my favorite writers on food, and Barbara Wallraff, who writes a smart column on language. I only regret that Caitlin Flanagan up and went to the New Yorker, which, though I subscribe, I seldom get around to reading.

But a magazine that often gets overlooked is the Hudson Review (which has a very full web presence). It's as high-minded as the New Criterion, as catholic as the Atlantic, and a much better read than the New York Review of Books. The latest number contains the best essay I've read all year, perhaps in many years. It's Bruce Bawer's essay on anti-Americanism, and I plan to post on this in a bit. (And check out Bruce Bawer's website for links to other writings by this supremely gifted critic.)

As stupid as we Americans are supposed to be, is there another country that manages to sustain, by whatever means, as many periodicals of high intellectual caliber as does the U.S.A.?



posted by Francis at September 11, 2004


Thanks for the tips. I guess I'll have to start up a subscription again to The Atlantic. It's been years, but the time seems to have come.

I'll add City Journal to your list of seriously good American mags too. Plus they put everything on the web, which is very gutsy of them. I haven't followed the New Republic or The Nation in a long time. Anything decent being published in them? I love readnig TNR's art critic Jed Perl, who's an amazing writer and has his own p-o-v. Come to think of it, I just read a really good piece in Harper's about YA (young adult) fiction, by Frances FitzGerald. What's she doing writing about YA fiction? But it's fascinating.

But often in recent years I've felt that I've gotten more out of trade magazines than out of mainstream mags. So much of the cultural action has been in the money, the tech, the business, and so few of the mainstream critic-types seemed to know much about this. I used to hang out with friends from Publishers Weekly, for instance -- and I had much better conversations with them about publishing and books than I usually did with namebrand critics or academics, who often simply didn't seem to have their feet on the ground, let alone in the mud.

But I'm ranting off topic, apologies...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 11, 2004 11:45 PM

I'll take Nixon's morals over those of the high holy lefty Ivy League presidents any day of the week.

They were oh so sympathetic to the noble aspirations of the North Vietnamese Communists. And when the inevitable happened and the Communists did what they always do - ruthlessly murder millions of "class enemies" - not a peep out of the anointed.

Posted by: ricpic on September 12, 2004 10:10 AM

Y'know, I'm a 7 Sisters alum and reputed to be an intellectual, but I venture to suggest that MAD MAGAZINE offers better commentary upon America today than any of these highbrow journals. I had to deal with JD McClatchy and the cast of characters at YALE REVIEW while a member of Thornton Wilder Society, and that was enough for me! Moreover, all of these magazines are keeping people from reading the literature of the ages around them, because they depend upon essayists to interpret the works for them, rather than tackling them themselves.
Michael, Jed Perl may be one hell of a writer; but I hope you never have to hear him speak in public! I recall writing in to the City Comforts blog after enduring a particularly excruciating talk of his at the American Academy in Rome (also a consortium of highbrow nonsense, much like Yaddo).
As mag authors go, I think Ken Woodward, religion ed of NEWSWEEK, is a fine writer; and he's not even an Ivy grad: he went to Haverford! And it's a pity that Ann Fadiman is no longer at AMERICAN SCHOLAR (though I liked HER, I still never read it!)

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 12, 2004 1:06 PM

Nothing wrong with Mad Magazine. Or, when it comes to that, South Park, which IMHO provides some acute social commentary. As for the "literature of the ages," the best essayists are often much more worth reading than most novelists or poets. How much of the "imaginative literature" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is as readable and as nourishing today as the essays of Johnson or Hazlitt? If reading Bruce Bawer on Proust keeps you from reading Proust, then the problem is yours, not Bruce Bawer's. And it's no reason to disparage Hudson Review.

People tell me that American Scholar under Fadiman was quite good. But I was so upset at the coup that ousted Joseph Epstein that I couldn't bring myself to look at the magazine again. I believe that under Epstein that magazine was not just good, it may have been the best magazine I've ever read.

Michael, I agree about City Journal. It's a measure of the cultural divide in New York that the mere mention of that magazine makes some people apoplectic. But I can honestly say it's one of the few periodicals of which I read every single article.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 12, 2004 2:33 PM

Every sentence in _City Journal_ seems to me to have been honed on an axe-grinder.

And in cases where they deal with a subject in which I have first-hand experience, where I have worked directly with the material, they come across as shallow and ill-infomed.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 12, 2004 2:47 PM

Does anyone remember PRIVATE EYE, which had a section called the "Pseud's Corner"? Lit-crit in general is a pseud's corner.
And that from an English major!

It was Shaw, I think (correct me if I'm wrong), who said,
"He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches."

Now all of academia will expostulate! Ah, well.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 12, 2004 3:02 PM

If a Martian landed and wanted to know real fast, via one publicaton or other, what life in America is like, I'd point him to The Onion.

Another more general question? Given that there are a lot of journals of ideas ... Given the existence of tons of smart blogs, blogsurfers and blogcommenters ... Why does the popular press so determinedly avoid the discussion of ideas? The NYTimes has a few pieces in the course of the week, and op-ed pieces (and columnists and onscreen ranters) are everywhere. But the thoughtful presentation and discussion of ideas? Almost nowhere.

Is this a "market failure"? As someone who lives and works close to the media worlds, I confess I'm flummoxed by this question. There's a demonstrated, provable taste for and interest in ideas. Why isn't the popular media business serving it?

It's almost enough to make me think that THEY DON'T WANT US TO THINK!!!!!! Not that I'm paranoid or anything.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2004 5:09 PM

Don't forget Corby Kummer's beautifully crafted articles on food and cooking. I'm not much of a cook, but I am writer, and his prose is among the best anywhere.

Posted by: beloml on September 13, 2004 11:32 AM


I agree about Kummer--a marvelous writer. But I did mention him in my long posting. Another reason to read the Atlantic.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 13, 2004 1:46 PM

City Journal's prose "honed on an axe grinder". I like that image. But it can be read two ways can't it? Maybe prose as sharp as a well-honed axe can cut both ways, as a double-edged sword.

Actually, I am partial myself to CJ. Sure it tilts "right", but consider the context! One can debate whether socialism is a viable path for entire systems of government--but there's little doubt in my mind that it is workable at the municipal level if the rest of the country does not share that philosophy.

Posted by: fenster on September 13, 2004 6:03 PM

re CJ, I have reconsidered.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 14, 2004 11:21 AM

I finally gave myself permission to skip articles in The Atlantic. Their book review section is outstanding; their articles are typically excellent and prescient (e.g., William Langewische reviewing the history of the Egyptian air flight crash just before Sept 11), but their politics has shifted a bit since the loss of Michael Kelly and I don't trust their analysis so much as I used to. The turning point was when their sources section presented the university study "showing" that Fox news viewers hold more incorrect opinions on the Iraq war than other news viewers without discussing problems with the survey (in particular, no questions that a left-leaning viewer would be likely to get wrong). Still a great magazine, however, and the source for probably half my reading recommendations in the last few years.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on September 14, 2004 2:04 PM

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