Victor S. Navasky is the renowned editor, writer, and educator who was at the helm of The Nation for almost thirty years. A Matter of Opinion, a scintillating reflection on his experiences, is an extraordinary political documentand a passionately written, irresistibly charming account of a great journalistic tradition.
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A Matter of Opinion
By VICTOR S. NAVASKY
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Victor S. Navasky
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA PERSONAL NOTE
I am the first member of my family to earn a college degree (A.B., Swarthmore 1954).
My father, Macy, should have gone to college but couldn't because he had to go to work for his father, who had come to New York from Russia in the 1890s and founded a small clothing manufacturing business in New York City's garment district. "Students and Young Men's Clothing," it said on the pencil advertising "Navasky & Sons," which later became the Sturdybuilt Company. Although he subscribed to The Nation and The New Republic, my father was no radical, and my grandfather never had a kind word to say about labor unions, even in Yiddish. The other sons, my father's brothers, were Alex and Abe. That's Alexander Hamilton Navasky and Abraham Lincoln Navasky. My mother, nee Esther Goldberg, was my father's secretary, until she married him and "retired."
My father, who went to New York City's High School of Commerce, where he was an A student, hated business. He wanted to be a writer, but the closest he came to getting published was letters to an occasional editor. His specialty was writing letters to Dan Parker, a New York Daily Mirror sports columnist who thought all fights were fixed. My father, a fan, thought none were:
9/15/50 Dear Parker: What this town needs are sportswriters who know that athletes reach a peak and then pass it, and when past it are not as good as when at it. Those strange things surrounding La Motta's recent fights were the key-pounders who hadn't assimilated this elementary truth ... Occasionally an admirer, Yours, Macy.
Parker would reply on the back of Macy's notepaper: "You certainly are a smart guy, Macy, even if you do say so yourself." When his father died, my father sold his share of the family business, at least partly, I always assumed, so that I would never have to go into it. At age forty-six, dragging my mother along, he enrolled in a short-story-writing seminar at our local public library where as far as I could figure out, he was the star student. Each week he would be asked to read his story, and after comments and revisions, he would put seven copies of his story in seven envelopes and send them off to seven magazines, like The Dial, the Saturday Review, and Collier's, along with self-addressed return envelopes. Over the course of the semester he received no acceptances but three or four encouraging letters, including one from the editor of The Dial, who wanted to know if he was working on a novel, and if so, asked to see it. Eventually he threw in the towel and spent the remainder of his days outwitting the stock market, writing letters to Dan Parker, and working his way through Faulkner, Dostoevsky, and the rest of the masters. It wasn't until years later that I discovered that each week my father had been sending out one original typed copy and six increasingly illegible carbon copies of the same stories, and that 100 percent of the encouraging notes were in response to the original manuscripts.
I had by accident what I later came to feel was an ideal education: From age five to eleven I attended the Rudolph Steiner School, whose aim was to cultivate the spirit by way of the arts; from eleven to seventeen I went to the Little Red School House and its high school, Elisabeth Irwin, whose mission, through community engagement, was to imbue students with a social conscience; and from eighteen to twenty-one I attended Swarthmore College, which focused on the intellect and the life of the mind in a Quaker context. For dessert, and as a correction to all of the above (age twenty-two to twenty-four), I served in the U.S. armed forces, after which I attended Yale Law School, which served as a bridge to the so-called real world.
My father chose the Rudolph Steiner School because, based on his own experience, he believed that public school "broke the spirit." Little did he know that Rudolph Steiner the man, founder of something called anthroposophy, literally believed that two weeks after the body expired the spirit surveyed the arc of its life and then was reincarnated in another vessel. (This I discovered only many years later-we were not taught reincarnation in school.) I chose Little Red because the best stickball player on my block went there. When I enrolled, neither I nor my parents knew that it had started as an experimental public school based on John Dewey's theories of progressive education and broke away when Elisabeth Irwin discovered that the Board of Education couldn't tolerate its independent ways. My parents knew mainly that it meant my taking a daily subway ride down to Greenwich Village, then still a bohemian redoubt, where the school was located.
Swarthmore chose me in the sense that it was the only college to which I had applied that accepted me.
At none of these institutions did I take a course in journalism or writing.
At Rudolph Steiner I learned my vowel sounds by acting them out in eurythmy classes ("O is for oak tree, tall and strong"). But I remember that after a third-grade field trip to a farm in upstate New York (an organic farm, of course-Rudolph Steiner was light-years ahead of the curve), our assignment the following week was to write 300 words on the trip. I chose as my topic "A Day in the Life of a Farmer" and dutifully turned in my paper. When it came back my teacher had written, "This is lovely, Victor. But what about the milking of the goat and the cows, and what about making the fire and dinner around the family table, and what about that tractor you rode on?" I had also forgotten to mention pitching hay. "Please fix."
So I dutifully fixed and a few days later turned in my much expanded paper. This time my teacher wrote, "This is wonderful, Victor. You have really captured what it is like to be a farmer. But it is far longer than 300 words. Please revise, keeping in all the facts, but don't use more than 300 words."
And so I did and so I didn't.
At Little Red I remember putting out a lame, mimeographed parody of the high school's photo-offset paper, Info, which was called, with sublime eighth-grade imagination, Ofni (Info spelled backward, get it?). But my real literary, education came from an inspirational high-school English teacher, Mr. Marvin. Mr. Marvin would spend much of his time reading aloud from his favorite poems-and not only would his heart leap up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, but his whole body seemed to follow, and depending on the poem, like a ballet dancer he would often end up en pointe.
He also taught us about literary standards. The day we returned from summer vacation, he went around the class asking what we thought of the suggested summer reading, Moby-Dick. When my friend Richard Atkinson courageously (I thought) said he thought it was "boring," Mr. Marvin said, "Moby-Dick isn't on trial, Mr. Atkinson, you are."
At Elisabeth Irwin I learned about politics less through what we were taught in the classroom than from the songs we sang and the hootenannies featuring such subversives as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry. They and we sang the anti-Fascist songs of the International Brigade in Spain, the labor songs of the CIO PAC ("Which Side Are You On?"), the freedom songs of the civil rights movement ("Lift Every, Voice and Sing"), the protest songs from the Warsaw Ghetto, and yes, of the Chinese, Soviet, and American revolutions; and just for the fun of it, love songs and ditties like "Newspapermen Meet Such Interesting People."
Over the years, I have learned from George Orwell, from Khruschev's revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress, from Gorbachev's and other memoirs, from the Venona decrypts and selected Soviet archives, some of the many things wrong with this particular naive internationalist vision of "the new world a-comin'." But as the democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote in 1977 in The Vast Majority, although the popular-front vision was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than to promote kindness, "for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it: of an internationalism that is still the only hope of mankind. My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade." Mine, too.
At Swarthmore, a nondenominational college founded by liberal Quakers (the Hicksites, followers of the early-nineteenth-century pastor Elias Hicks, who believed, among other things, in coeducation), I co-edited the weekly Phoenix, the student paper, and contributed to an upstart student periodical called the Lit. Although I didn't understand it at the time, my real magazine education came from the college's honors program, modeled by Frank Aydelotte after Oxford's tutorials. If you entered the honors program, in your junior and senior years you attended no lectures, took no exams, and received no term grades. Instead, you took eight small-group seminars (two per semester), at the end of which you were subjected to a battery of written and oral exams from "outside" examiners; i.e., professors from other institutions, who knew nothing about you other than what had been on your reading list. The theory was that the weekly seminars would be unpolluted by students trying to impress professors.
For me, though, the requirement of writing a weekly, unfootnoted, six-to-eight-page paper worked well, the equivalent of writing a weekly journalistic essay on deadline; the give-and-take in the seminars was the equivalent of an editorial conference: and the sharing of one's weekly paper with fellow students (we each compiled each other's papers along with our own in ever-thickening spring binders) was a form of pseudo-publication. The honors program still survives, albeit in a diluted form. In the late 1960s, new generations of students attacked the honors seminars as elitist (only about 40 percent of the students were admitted to them), sexist (professors were expected to provide refreshments for the home-based seminars, a responsibility that frequently fell upon their mostly female spouses), and the formula of four seminars in one's major and two in each of two related minors seemed too narrow and inflexible. Many of the students now prefer to take a year overseas.
At Swarthmore one of my favorite professors was Murray Stedman, who taught political science. He told us if we remembered nothing else we should commit to memory Robert MacIver's definition of myth ("a value-impregnated belief"). I also remember his line about why the student-run commons store, which dispensed hundreds of cups of coffee a day, nevertheless lost money. "Because," he said, "Swarthmore students have an anti-business bias. Put three City College business majors in charge of that store and in six months they will be making money hand over fist." I told him that the anti-business bias was a myth, but in my case at least was factually correct. It wasn't until decades later, after I entered the Harvard Business School, that I tried to do something about it.
"It's always better, when job hunting, to apply to a specific person rather than to an anonymous title," I tell my students, "and if possible to come with a connection to that person." I secured my own first job in the journalism business that way, although it wasn't until I had it that I learned that the old cliche-it's not what you know but whom you know-was not quite right.
During a break in a Shakespeare seminar at Swarthmore, my classmate Pat Bryson and I got to talking about our summer plans or, in my case, lack of them. "What would you like to do?" Pat asked. "Work on a newspaper or magazine," I said. "Well, maybe Daddy can help you," Pat said, in her cute upper-class Brit accent, "but it would have to be in England. Would that be all right?" "Would it!" I said.
Pat suggested that I call Daddy over the Christmas holidays and see whether he might help.
George Bryson had for fifteen years been the founder and managing director of the world-famous advertising agency Young & Rubicam's London office. In that capacity he dealt with-placed ads for and otherwise represented Y&R in-British newspapers, magazines, and television, and perhaps had some contacts he could put at my disposal. Now he was back in News York, though all his press contacts were in England. I called Mr. Bryson over the holidays. He invited me for a drink at his posh East Side apartment and we discussed two papers: the News of the World, which was a weekly with a circulation in the millions, and the Daily Mirror, a Labour daily, which seemed more my speed.
When I mentioned the conversation to Larry Lafore, my history professor, who had spent the previous year on sabbatical in the U.K., he said, "Oh, if you have a choice by all means do News of the World." He explained that a typical News of the World article might be an in-depth report on a parish priest who raped eight of his parishioners, but it would appear under a heading like "Clergyman Commits Indiscretion." Larry taught diplomatic history, but he was a gifted social historian, novelist, and world-class teacher. He taught one class on the history of England by having each student write for his term paper a chapter in a collective novel. He reeked of credibility and savoir faire. He lectured without notes, hut his perfectly structured talks always ended a second before the bell, after which he would disappear out the door. Only on the last class of the semester did he end his class at the window, rather than the door. With nonchalant aplomb he proceeded to open the window and make his exit onto the fire escape.
A few months later I found myself on a student ship, Holland America's Groote Beer. After six rocky days at sea, I disembarked at Southampton, and once in London headed right for the offices of News of the World, where after a half-hour wait the editor saw me. He explained that he was seeing me as a courtesy to Mr. Bryson, but that the chapel (the British equivalent of the union local) would have his head if a nonchapel member "so much as lifted a pencil." But I came all the way from New York, I began to whine, when he continued. "Now," he said, "the provinces are something else again. Would you mind going to Worcester? If we presented you to The Berrow's Worcester Journal as an American who was studying the British press-that's really what you're doing, isn't it?"-he asked, as he began writing what I assumed to be a letter of introduction to a Mr. Jack Worrell, proprietor of the Berrow's Worcester Journal, the world's oldest weekly. "Well, yes, if you say so, although I was hoping to get some experience," I volunteered tentatively.
Excerpted from A Matter of Opinion by VICTOR S. NAVASKY Copyright © 2005 by Victor S. Navasky. Excerpted by permission.
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