A Matter of Opinion, by Victor S Navasky

Fighting the good fight for truth
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The Independent Culture

In this country, America's leftish weekly the Nation is, a bit vaguely, known as the transatlantic version of the New Statesman. But the Nation sells 185,000 copies per week, six times as many as its relative, for years carried (for example) E P Thompson and Edward Said on the masthead, regularly published such theatre-filling names as Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and I F Stone, and is backed to the tune of half a million dollars by Paul Newman.

Victor Navasky has been first its editor and then its publisher for almost 30 years. This wonderful book is at once his story, a history of the Nation, a comedy of manners of the East Coast intelligentsia and an ardent and affecting statement of just how important to the failing life of democracy is the existence of journals of opinion and dissent.

But the book, like the man, stands up for more than that. At a time of reflex anti-Americanism on the part of the European left, Navasky reminds us of what the best of our allies really sounds like. He has, as he says, not much time for the dislocations of postmodernism, and stands squarely in the tradition of the great journalists of American literature: Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens, Walter Lippmann, Martha Gellhorn. What is more, he stands in that line every bit their equal, master of a plain, robust and self-aware prose.

Navasky had a rich and gamey career before the Nation. He edited an early American sort-of-Private Eye called the Monocle. He published the Cold War spoof, Report from Black Mountain; he wrote Naming Names, his gripping chronicle of the grisly business of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

His is a tumultuous narrative, told with an immediacy as well as a sardonic good humour which leaves no gap at all between the character of its author and the presence of the book. Even its few longueurs are short, for the endless tales of how Navasky's utter devotion kept the Nation financially afloat have a strangler's grip. Keeping the Nation not just alive but so muscular, so vigorous, has no bottom line. It is the duty such a man feels and has to the best in his mighty nation's inheritance, bringing out for our admiration the best in him, and them.

Fred Inglis is author of People's Witness' (Yale)