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'Torment of the Generations' : THE NATION, 1865-1990; Selections From the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture edited by Katrina vanden Heuvel (Thunder's Mouth Press: $21.95; 560 pp.)

November 18, 1990|Erwin Knoll | Knoll is the editor of the Progressive, a monthly magazine of investigative reporting, political analysis and cultural commentary, published since 1909 in Madison, Wis

I'm sure the editors of the Nation get the same kind of criticism that comes to me as editor of the Progressive, and I suspect they get just as tired of it as I do. First, there's the complaint that the magazine has become altogether too predictable, repeating in each issue the same set of knee-jerk reactions to the way things are. And second, there's the complaint that the magazine is inconsistent, departing all too frequently from its founding precepts.

It's small comfort that these gripes cancel each other out, or that they sometimes come in a single letter from a single reader. An editor who's accused three or four times a day of stuffy monotony and another three or four times of reckless flightiness is bound to conclude that he or she must be doing something terribly wrong.

So I'm grateful to Katrina vanden Heuvel, an editor-at-large of the Nation, for compiling this splendid collection of articles and editorials, reviews and poems published by that admirable publication in its century-and-a-quarter history. She's included it all--the predictable and preachy and ponderous, the flighty and foolish and featherweight. The result is not only a vindication of the magazine, despite its fads and foibles, but a triumphant celebration of its political and cultural significance.

For half a century and more, the Nation has been firmly positioned on the left of the political spectrum, so readers may be surprised by the distinctly conservative tone of some of the older pieces collected here. What is consistent, however, is the magazine's constant assertion of a fiercely independent viewpoint--one that regularly challenges the conventional wisdom and enrages the decision-makers of the time.

"The topic of the day," E. L. Doctorow justly observes in his introduction, "turns out to be the torment of the generations. And the modest objective of a weekly magazine transforms in time into a kind of narrative depicting an awesome journey of the national spirit."

Among those who have described that journey in the pages of the Nation, and whose words are reprinted in this volume, are Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather, H. L. Mencken and Chaim Weitzman, Adolf Hitler (in a 1925 letter to the editor) and Emma Goldman (in a 1934 lament for the bitter fate of radical exiles from "Russia, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and other lesser countries. All these lands have become the graveyard of revolutionary and libertarian ideals").

That last piece, though it was published by the Nation, drew a rebuke to Goldman from editor Freda Kirchwey, illustrating the kind of political ambiguity that lends this book much of its enormous interest.

"While I do not quarrel with your right to say what you believe," Kirchwey wrote, "I feel that at a time when fascist dictatorship is the dominant instrument of oppression in Europe, you have been at least guilty of a lack of proportion in the emphasis you place on Russia's sins."

Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film maker, is here, asserting in 1927 that "I approach the making of a motion picture in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly utilitarian, rational, materialistic."

Ezra Pound, who later would broadcast propaganda for fascist Italy, is here, also in 1927, vituperating against the bureaucrats in the U.S. Passport Office--"hired janitors who think they own the whole building."

And--a nice surprise--Robert Benchley, who wrote funny little pieces for such publications as The New Yorker and the Detroit Athletic Club News and made funny little movies on how to cope with insomnia, is here with a devastating political satire, vintage 1919, called "The Making of a Red."

I do not want to slight the more recent contributors to the Nation and to this volume. Molly Ivins' disquisition on Texas politics ("finest form of free entertainment ever invented") is worth the price of admission all by itself. Paul Krassner remembers Abbie Hoffman; Alexander Cockburn remembers the My Lai massacre; Arthur Danto remembers Andy Warhohl.

What astonishes is how much of the Nation itself is worth remembering and rereading. By mass-media standards, it's a small magazine, drab in format, modest in circulation. Sometimes it's predictable and sometimes it's inconsistent as hell. But what a national treasure, and how good it is to have so much of it between hard covers!

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