The Easy Chair (1955)

from the Preface

Whatever else society may have, and whatever it may at times lack, it insists on having priests, doctors, and people who disseminate and interpret the news. The demand for the services which the three professions perform is only increased by social turbulence that may threaten other professions with extinction. Journalism ranks much lower than the other two in public esteem and its practitioners are not granted the ordainment priests receive or the consecration doctors advertise themselves as possessing. But they are more constantly in demand and their field is by far the largest. Between them, the town crier and the pamphleteer pretty well cover that field, but it has many departments and they cover it by many kinds of activity, some of which have only an indirect relation to the news as such. Of many of these activities we may say that they are not important, they are only indispensable.

An assumption presents this book as entitled to a certificate of legitimacy under the statutes governing fair trade: the assumption that the kind of journalism represented by the magazine in which its contents appeared has proved necessary. Harper's serves a good many uses, and it serves some of them by means of such articles as those reprinted here.

Courses given at schools of journalism must occasionally, I think, discuss Harper's. How would a professor who gives such a course describe it to his class? He would characterize it as a magazine of critical inquiry and appraisal, a forum for the expression and discussion of ideas, and a vehicle for the publication of some kinds of news and of comment on many kinds. He would point out that it is addressed to the best educated audience in the United States. He would say that this audience gives it public influence altogether disproportionate to the size of its circulation. And I believe he would be constrained to add that there is no journalism more expert.

It began with the issue for June 1850 and as Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Sixteen months later, in the October 1851 issue, a new department appeared in it, called "The Editor's Easy Chair," though it was not written -- indeed it never was to be written -- by the editor of Harper's. It was a department of personal comment and it has appeared regularly ever since, except for a lapse of eight years.

For two years the new department was written, though not signed, by Donald G. Mitchell, who is known to literary history today only as the author, under his pseudonym Ik Marvel, of a series of sentimental fantasies called Reveries of a Bachelor. From 1853 to 1859 The Editor's Easy Chair was written jointly by Mitchell and George William Curtis, the encyclopedist, publicist, and reformer. Mitchell's association with it ended in 1859 and Curtis wrote it from then till his death in 1892, following which the eight-year lapse occurred. The column was revived in 1900 under the authorship of William Dean Howells, who wrote it for twenty years. Edward S. Martin succeeded Howells in 1920, and I succeeded Martin in 1935. At that time the name was abbreviated to The Easy Chair.

Thus the Easy Chair is the oldest editorial feature in American journalism. My four predecessors all had literary careers but they were all working journalists too. All had been reporters and editorial writers; all were expert at a characteristic form of magazine journalism that is neither reportorial nor editorial but expository. And all were that indefinable but highly specific thing, the professional writer. The title, the Easy Chair, was no doubt intended to suggest a lamplit study withdrawn from the bustle of commerce, with an overtone of reflection, of leisure, or at least time, to think beyond surface appearances. It was also meant to have a connotation of urbane informality, of a graceful interplay of thought and personality that used to be more highly regarded as literature than it is now. Yet the Easy Chair has never corresponded entirely to these connotations, which add up to the genteel or familiar essay. It has always had a quality it could not get in the study but only down the street, at the square, and in the city hall. If study and reflection have gone into it, so have legwork, sweat, and the opinion that is based not on research but on experience and participation. The five men who have written it were fairly entitled to more than five literary labels; three or perhaps four were novelists, two were humorists, one was a dramatist, and one a historian. But, I repeat, all have been working journalists and all have been professional writers.

We may say that the professional is a writer who has subdued himself to the job rather than shaped the job to enhance his awareness of himself. If the Easy Chair has served a genuine need, it has done so for that reason. Indeed, since it is a column of personal comment, only a professional writer could write it effectively -- only a man who knows that the opinion and the expression of the opinion are everything and that the person who holds it does not, in journalism, count at all. I do not know as much about Mitchell as I ought to but I am sure of my ground with the other three. What they had to say and getting it said were important; they knew that they themselves had no importance for the end in view. As for me, I agree with the character farther along in the book who remarks that you would only snicker if the chore boy proved to be too fastidious to go on mowing the lawn. But the chores have to be done.

I feel that the title does not misrepresent the book, though seven of the thirty-one items reprinted here did not appear originally in the Easy Chair. Six of them were text articles in Harper's: "The Century," "Doctors Along the Boardwalk," "The Smokejumpers," "The West Against Itself," ["Sacred Cows and Public Lands,"] and "Conservation: Down and on the Way Out." The seventh, "The Ex-Communists," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. There is no discrepancy. These pieces and the Easy Chair are all of the same substance, the substance of a Harper's article, which I have described several times. Even "The Ex-Communists" expounds a text that was first a single sentence in an Easy Chair, in "But Sometimes They Vote Right Too." My friend Charles W. Morton, the associate editor of the Atlantic, spotted a sermon in it and asked me to write the sermon.


I invite the reader to consider "Number 241" a continuation of this preface.


Number 241

(Harper’s, November 1955)

The Nieman Fellows are newspapermen who spend a year studying at Harvard in order, so the grant that finances them reads, "to promote and elevate standards of journalism" in the United States. At intervals writers and editors are invited to talk to them about problems of journalism, and some time ago this election fell on the editor of Harper's. He chose to discuss the kind of journalism that Harper's publishes. Before he got very far there was a question from the floor: What fees did he pay for contributions? They are not of Hollywood size and another question followed at once, "How do you get anyone to write for Harper's?" There was no problem, the editor said; the articles that Harper's publishes are written by people who want to write for Harper's. The magazine pays as much as it can afford to but for the Harper's writer the fee is not the first consideration, it is not even an important one. He wants to bring something to the attention of the public.

For many Harper's pieces there is only one other possible outlet, the Atlantic. I cite the articles about the struggle over the public lands that I have been running periodically in the Easy Chair and the body of the magazine ever since January 1947. Some have been straight news stories, some have been editorial comment, some have been primarily polemic; but whatever their nature, they have given the subject the only adequate coverage it has had anywhere. No newspaper has covered it well, and that goes for the New York Times. Apart from Harper's no magazine has more than glanced at it. Presumably I could have published most of my pieces in the Atlantic -- but where else? Several magazines for sportsmen ran occasional articles about isolated parts of the struggle. In the first year after the story of the landgrab broke -- after I broke the story -- Collier's ran two pieces about it. No other mass circulation magazine would touch it. The weeklies never got past the fringe. But Harper's ran my articles; to run such articles is one of its functions

Harper's and the Atlantic are the only survivors of what was called the Quality Group when I was in college. The phrase carries no implication that there is not journalism as expert in other magazine; it does imply that much quality group journalism is different in kind, context, or treatment from other journalism, and that is has some forms of its own. All the other original members of the group have died and only two magazines that can be considered to belong to it have been established, Fortune and the New Yorker. Some Harper's articles might well appear in one or the other of them; some others might appear in such magazines as the New Republic or the Reporter. None of these magazines, however, shares more than a part of the Harper's field. In the Easy Chair of the Centennial Issue I described that field, and I explained that Harper's has survived because it assumed some functions that American journalism at large has either relinquished voluntarily or proved unable to perform. The "people who want to write for Harper's" perform those functions.

I appear to be the person who wants most to write for Harper's. I have kept a file of my publications but I know that it is not complete and so I cannot say exactly how many pieces I have published in this magazine. There must have been at least thirty text articles and I began writing the Easy Chair twenty years ago this month, with the issue of November 1935. The total must be at least eight hundred thousand words, and more likely it is nine hundred thousand -- the equivalent of half a dozen long books. As my twentieth anniversary approached, it occurred to me with some force that I have written more for Harper's than anyone else now living.

When my turn to address the Niemans came, I reminded them that the Easy Chair is the oldest editorial feature in american journalism. It is subject to the conditions of monthly journalism but only one limitation is set on it, that of length. I used to work three weeks ahead of publication, but the breath-taking advance in technology that is called American knowhow spread to printing establishments and for some years I have had to work seven weeks ahead. The limitation of length and the long time lapse are a monthly test of a writer's professional judgment, not to speak of his luck. (My luck has been good; in twenty years I have had to make only one stop-press change because a situation developed otherwise than I had judged it would.) Also, I have a deadline. The editors will tell you that I have never missed it, and I can tell you that I am scrupulous not to anticipate it. One of the satisfactions of being a Harper's writer is that you remain your own writer; your work is not taken down, disassembled, and rewritten by a committee; you are expected to provide your own structure, verification, and who-he. But even the writers who edit Harper's are editors; their fingers may be counted on to twitch if given time.

When the Niemans pressed me for a label that would describe the Easy Chair I could do no better than "cultural criticism," which is unsatisfactory. I have never formulated any principles for writing it but I have probably observed some. Such a column as this could not easily be pretentious and I have tried to keep it from being pompous. I have tried to avoid repeating myself, at short intervals anyway, and to keep the subject matter so varied that a reader would not know what to expect when he turned to the column. I have ranged so widely that I found I could not represent the full scope of the Easy Chair in this volume of selections. I have assumed that there was no public demand for me to write about anything at all but that if I was interested in something, some readers would be interested in it too. But also I have written about a good many subjects not primarily because I wanted to write about them but because it seemed likely that no one else would. Harper's does some chores because it believes that journalism must not leave them undone; so does the Easy Chair.

Some implications of my job were obvious from the beginning; others became apparent to me only gradually. Fact pieces in the New Yorker have a formula which is intended to preserve the convention that Mr. Tilley's interest in anything is strictly dilettante. "When I met Mr. Chase the next morning, he suggested that I have coffee with Mr. Sanborn while the reports from the whatisits were coming in." For a time after I began writing the Easy Chair I went to equal length to give it an appearance of editorial anonymity. But the personal pronoun is a space-saver and I found myself more and more forced to make use of it. I was surprised to find that readers welcomed it. Not many places where personal journalism can be practiced legitimately remain; there seems to be a use for what is left of it.

Equally surprising is the value attributed to such editorial space as mine by press agents. In the name of our common culture and the American way they call on me to publicize goods, liquors, restaurants, business firms, crusading organizations, crackpot organizations, causes, people who pay to get their names in print, and one columnist whose social engineer keeps demanding that I explain to my readers how the American language has been enriched by the words he invents. These efforts are occasionally subtle but usually high-pressure, frequently elaborate, and sometimes so persistent that it would have been cheaper for the client to buy four pages of display space in Harper's. If any has succeeded, then it succeeded brilliantly for I did not know I was being taken. Sometimes a press agent's solicitation has resulted in my abandoning an Easy Chair I had intended to write.

Such eagerness does not inflate my ego, for there are counter-irritants. Some of my most enthusiastic readers are people who have been reading someone else, frequently Elmer Davis. Others understand that the Easy Chair is a department of the Atlantic. And things happen, as when an apparently sober publisher once thanked me for rescuing a book he had published. The sale was small and had dried up, he said, but following my Easy Chair about it, it revived and ran sixteen thousand copies. This was a flattering story but it had a hole in it, for I hadn't written anything about the book. And I get a lot of letters praising or denouncing pieces which neither I nor anyone else has written.

Readers write to me; newspapers run quotes from the Easy Chair and write editorials about it; other writers use it or refer to it in articles and books. These are the only means I have of judging the response to it. It has had enough supporters to count or I would have been fired. It has had opponents and even enemies, some of them habitual or occupational. I have annoyed quite a lot of people but though I have cost Harper's some subscribers there have been no lawsuits. A cheesemaker tried hard to suppress me and a publisher of books to censor me. Neither succeeded.

The Easy Chair is sometimes called controversial, even by Personal and Otherwise, but the adjective is inaccurate. I have deliberately precipitated only one controversy, the one over the public lands I have mentioned, and I precipitated that one as a reporter. It took me some time to understand what the reality behind the inaccurate adjective is and why the Easy Chair has produced so much more heat than it has carried. My job is to write about anything in American life that may interest me, but it is also to arrive at judgments under my own steam, independently of others. With some judgments that is the end of the line; express them and you have nothing more to do. But there are also judgments that require you to commit yourself, to stick your neck out. Expressing them in print obliges you to go on to advocacy. They get home to people's beliefs and feelings about important things, and that makes them inflammable.

I seem most consistently to offend two groups that have in common a love of simplifications and absolutes: writers of advertising copy and contributors to quarterlies that deal with epistemology and, trailing by some lengths, literature. Copy writers always run a mild fever, quite trivial stimuli can send it shooting up, and I am always wounding these poet-patriots without intending to. Commonly they assail me with one or the other of two libels, that only a communist would disparage manufactured goods and that I could have made a fortune, as clearly I have not done if I had gone into advertising. Often they are rhetorically belligerent and the announced intention of one is to punch my nose. Still, I was once asked to address a meeting of advertising men, whereas so far as I know no quarterly has ever approved of anything I have written. The accusation here is on different grounds and there is no lament that I once had it in me to become a literary person. Instead there is a twofold anxiety, to establish that I am middlebrow, philistine, superficial, the enemy -- in a word, a journalist -- and that I have betrayed or subverted literary thinking.

The condescension seems superfluous, a waste of energy. It is fully visible that I respect reality-judgments as requiring more intelligence than fantasy and think them a better instrument for critical analysis. Just as visibly I distrust the literary approach to experience, preferring direct approaches. The universals of a priori thinking are not for me, large abstractions will not fit my hand, and I work with complexities and tentatives. Certainly, I am a journalist. But who is using all those epithets? Long ago I got used to seeing ideas which were first expressed in this column, or in my books, turn up as the invention and fee-simple property of literary thinkers who scorned and denounced them when I published them.

More than that. When I was preparing this book I found clipped to one Easy Chair an article I had forgotten. The critic who wrote it proved me a fascist, without disclosing that he knew what fascism is but simmering with the same resentment that nowadays represents me as a red, and went on to say, "If Mr. DeVoto is a democrat, then I am not." That may be a true statement but we have no way of knowing, for there is nothing to tell us what he is. I have been reading him for many years and I have yet to see him stick his neck out about anything except the symbol of the peach in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Getting out on that limb may have required courage but not of a kind that would make trouble for him, and I believe that some years later the peach proved to have been eaten by Edward Fitzgerald. Some battles cannot be fought after the fact and in journalism a writer runs into some he does not care to be above.

The first Easy Chair I wrote described some asininities committed by a New Deal agency. (Prophetically, it was a news story, one I had dug out for myself.) Various newspapers promptly admitted Mr. E. S. Martin's successor to the Republican Party. The welcome was premature. I doubt if anyone was ever a 100 per cent New Dealer -- obviously Mr. Roosevelt wasn't -- but though many New Deal intellectuals had a much higher proof than mine, on the whole I had to go along. I got to that position by studying history, and the study of history has held me to the working principles of American liberalism.

Here, I believe, is where the accusation that I have betrayed literary thinking comes in, for fashions and events have required me, every so often, to show that literary liberalism is something else. I was at odds with the dominant fashions of literary thinking during the nineteen-twenties. Most of those who followed them seemed to me naïve and ignorant, ignorant especially of our history and of politics. During the nineteen-thirties I felt no impulse to seek comfort in Marx and Lenin, and it was again my job to point out that the literary thinkers who did were naïve and ignorant, ignorant especially of American history and of the politics which they told us they had mastered.

And today I feel no impulse to regress to Burke, Hobbes, Mandeville, or personal revelation. It is now high literary fashion to represent the fashionables of the earlier decades as naïve and ignorant, and this fact has a rich flavor but the empirical grounds from which the representation is made seem worse than dubious. The thinkers are still practicing book reviewing. They have mastered politics just as their predecessors did, by making it up while gazing earnestly at their navels. Nothing could astonish a journalist more than the fantasies regularly published in the literary quarterlies about the government of the United States, which its mechanism and energies are, how they are controlled. The practice of journalism has led me not only to work constantly with the reports of committees, commissions, and bureaus, but constantly to study Congress and the federal bureaus in action. I have had to know intimately many Senators, Congressmen, and bureau officials, and I have shared or assisted the work of a good many. I have seen nothing to justify the literary critic's belief that he is more intelligent than the politician. And when I read what the quarterlies say about actions I know empirically -- and say with a condescension that would be unbecoming in an archangel -- I seldom find any realization at all of what the real energies are work are, or the real issues. I conclude that there is one infrangible virginity: literary criticism is not an approach to politics.

The Chicago Tribune put me on its list long ago and invented the word "DeVotoism" to classify one entire order of its phobias. The heaviest mail I have ever received was evoked not by the FBI piece about which McCarthy made libelous statements but by an Easy Chair a year before we entered the war which said that we ought to enter it and predicted that we would. Orders had gone out from the GHQ of America First to work me over. The organization charged its heirs to keep after me and they have been faithful to the trust. A lot of them are too pure in heart to sign their names.

If I have written as readily about disk jockeys as about The Federalist, that willingness too can be ascribed to the study of history. Library stacks as well as the town square taught me that no manifestation of American life is trivial to the critic of culture. Such a column as this could not easily avoid politics but no doubt I have felt an additional incentive to write about it because I was practicing history. Also, unlike much writing, political comment is a form of action. Sometimes it runs to prophecy too, and here I am entitled to brag. All but one of my prophecies have been borne out by the event, and if that one was a national-championship flop it originated in a mistake we are all prone to make. I underestimated the stupidity of the Republican grand strategy.

My commonest political theme has been the erosion of the Bill of Rights. Before the war, and this is revealing, the Easy Chair was disturbed by such peripheral matters as literary censorship and our home-grown Catos. During the war it was usually suppression of the news, and I as uncomfortable for I had to take potshots at my friend Elmer Davis in order to get at the authorities who were muzzling him. Since the war the attack on our freedoms as come closer to the jugular, and so I have been suspect in the indicated quarters. If I can judge by the quotations adduced by other committees, the file which the Un-American Activities Committee has one my contains little more than the Daily Worker's praise of the Easy Chair on the FBI. But most of the beagles have bayed at me (as their newly arrived imitators in Congress have begun to do) and I have been named on various lists of subversives. Nomination to them is the diagnostic test of decency for anyone who has a public forum. We have fought at Arques: where were you?

In twenty years I have published eight books and two collections of occasional pieces. I have edited a basic document of American history, and I have supported my family by writing for magazines more affluent than Harper's. And I have written the Easy Chair. Always I have written it under pressure of haste and with the morose knowledge that I was not writing it well enough. But in my private assignments it has always come first.

I hope that what I have said has been said gracefully and that sometimes it has been amusing, or informative, or useful. No one has got me to say anything I did not want to say and no one has prevented me from saying anything I wanted to. The Easy Chair has given me a place in the journalism of my time. No one knows better than a journalist that his work is ephemeral. As I have said in my preface, it is not important, it is only indispensable. The life or the half life of an issue of Harper's has never been calculated; the magazine has durable covers but even the copies kept in doctors' waiting rooms wear out and are dumped in the bay or ground up for pulp. But a historian knows that a lot of writing which has no caste mark on its forehead gets dumped in the bay too, and that he can count on finding bound files of Harper's in library stacks. He has to use them; he cannot write history without them.