Alfred Kazin on The New Republic in 1989: Parvenu Smugness, Post-Liberal Bitterness, and Town Gossips

Writing in The New Republic in November 1989, on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, who had served as the magazine’s literary editor for a time, had this to say:

What I read in the front of the book is informative, saucy, in tone terribly sure of itself. It gives me no general enlightenment on the moral and intellectual critic underlying the crisis of the week, above all no inspiration. There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching. Washington is more beautiful and imposing than it has ever been, is a wonderful town to look at—if you overlook Anacostia and Shaw. It always looks like Sunday; it can be a relief after openly decadent, bleeding New York. But like all company towns, it is parochial, and TNR reflects that, is too much occupied by and with town gossips. Except for government scientists, no real ideas ever start here. The many clever people in and out of government are not “intellectuals” in the old sense—thinkers with a sense of prophecy—but “experts,” no-nonsense minds that can chill me. When I read in TNR that homeless people are invariably mental cases in need of treatment, I realize that economic frustration and hopelessness, the real bottom line, are to some privileged folks never a condition but, as Gertrude Himmelfarb put in the title of her book on poverty, “an idea.”

I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing—beyond a certain parvenu smugness, an excessive familiarity with the inside track and the inside dope, and, above all, beyond that devouring interest in other journalists that confines so many commentaries out of Washington to triviality. I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington, that are apparent more to writers—confined wherever they may be—than to the wearily clever, easily exasperated, heirs and guardians of the liberal democracy that is the one tradition we seem to have left.

This is the magazine of ideas whose death we are now meant to be mourning.

As he was writing this, Kazin had this to say in his private journals:

Peretz’s leadership has been too strident, too irritated with the “Marxist” and “Woodstock” elements among the young whom he is aware of as a Harvard teacher in his spare jours. All the earmarks of the parvenu…the post-liberal bitterness.


  1. BillR December 7, 2014 at 8:38 pm | #
  2. Roquentin December 7, 2014 at 10:40 pm | #

    Full disclosure: I’ve never read The New Republic so much as a single time. I can’t even recall reading an article linked to it. I think I’d heard the name a handful of times, but that’s about it.

    On a side note, I have survived a corporate takeover before. They are no picnic. Sometimes it’s good to be low man on the totem pole, because you aren’t important enough to send out the door. My stay exceeds many of the executives at this point. I was reading a biography of Stalin, trying to understand the Great Purge, hoping it might give me some kind of desperately needed insight. I read the most aggressive sounding things I could find in those days…Hobbes, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Nietzsche. It was in the aftermath of 2008. Things were crazy and panic was in the air. I watched 20 people get sent out the door shortly after I was hired. I mostly remember being glad it wasn’t me.

  3. Larry Derfner December 8, 2014 at 2:00 am | #

    For me, at least, it’s not that New Republic was so good, it’s that the rich high-tech robots who trashed it are so nauseating, so TNR looks great by comparison..

  4. calling all toasters December 8, 2014 at 10:21 am | #

    An epitaph for TNR: An influential liberal magazine; but what was liberal was not influential and what was influential was not liberal.

  5. DB December 8, 2014 at 10:34 am | #

    Thanks for posting Kazin’s remarks. His commentary is spot on even absent a TNR context. Being in DC, his notion of “experts” vs. “ideas” and “intellectuals” is particularly salient. We have too many so called “experts” (read careerists), but not enough people with original ideas, wisdom, judgment or compassion.

  6. jonnybutter December 8, 2014 at 11:39 am | #

    Being in DC, his notion of “experts” vs. “ideas” and “intellectuals” is particularly salient. We have too many so called “experts” (read careerists), but not enough people with original ideas, wisdom, judgment or compassion.

    Shouldn’t be surprising that the tastefully low rise, gilded pig trough that DC has become attracts ‘careerists’. If I needed to start a business now, I would move to DC and start a spanking service. I would get RICH.

  7. Michael Kazin December 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm | #

    My father was quite right about TNR– when he wrote this almost a quarter-century ago. But in the past few years, under Frank Foer in particular, writers like John Judis, Alec MacGillis, Jdith Ioffe, and Jon Cohn helped turn it into a principled and informative liberal magazine. And they were willing to let lefties like me write on a regular basis — and say whatever I wanted to say. And say what you will about Leon W.: he edited the smartest, least predictable back-of-the-book of any mag in the U.S.

  8. The Gospel of Barney December 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm | #

    I don’t think we are “post-liberal,” but one can always hope

  9. gstally December 8, 2014 at 10:09 pm | #

    “irritated with the “Marxist” and “Woodstock” elements among the young”

    I could understand that. I think I’ll need another decade or two at least before I think I’ll be ready for that kind of commitment. A lot of the presentations of Peretz I’ve been coming across out there as of late give off the impression of a crazy bigot or a disingenuous provocateur.

    • gstally December 11, 2014 at 12:37 am | #

      That is to say, my arrogant posturing is very much an act (one that wasn’t about impressing academics), and I can say with no ego a damn good one at that 😀 I’m really young and really ignorant. I’m really terrified by what I don’t know. Ya know? I think that’s one of the central critiques of Plato’s is that Democracy put’s a lot of pressure on it’s citizens to know and do the right thing.

  10. Vetty December 9, 2014 at 3:02 am | #

    Even more revealing than Kazin’s article in the PDF was ,in my view, the ad for the Library of America’s Lincoln writings (“our greatest president”) printed at the bottom of the last page.

    It said it all: here is magazine aimed at an audience imbued with its own political importance, and more interested in the myth than in the reality.

    • gstally December 10, 2014 at 7:59 pm | #

      My favorite part was the the clip of the last bit of the previous article at the top.

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