There are basically two kinds of autobiographies. The first kind lays bare the individual self, speaking in detail—sometimes too much detail—about the autobiographer’s life, loves, conquests and failures. The second kind seeks to subordinates the life to the times, using individual experience to illuminate wider social trends and processes. In the Indian context, Gandhi’s autobiography might easily be identified as being of the first type; Nehru’s autobiography, as being of the second. (In fact, most self-testimonies fall into one or the other category; rare is the work that successfully straddles or combines both.)
I have recently been reading the autobiography of Victor Navasky, the long-time editor and now publisher of the American radical weekly, The Nation. Entitled A Matter of Opinion, the book consistently privileges the public over the personal. Navasky’s wife and children make only fleeting appearances. The focus, squarely, is on impersonal events, as they unfolded in the life of the nation and, indeed, in the career of The Nation.
The Nation was founded in 1865 as an abolitionist paper, and played a vanguard role in the struggle against slavery in the United States. The magazine’s founding editor, E. L. Godkin, said that it ‘was not to be a party paper’, for ‘too close identification with a factional or partisan cause was bad journalism as well as bad policy’. Godkin added that while the paper would ‘devote a good deal of attention to the social and political condition of the blacks [in] the South’, it would not degenerate into a ‘mere canting organ of the radical wing’. His ultimate aim was to produce a paper which might not make monetary profit, but ‘whose influence on those who read it, and on the country’s papers, would be enlightening, elevating, and refining’.
Among later Nation editors was Freda Kirchwey, perhaps the first woman anywhere to edit a political weekly of import. She joined the journal shortly after the First World War, and ran it during the Second, when it played a critical part in uncovering the horrors of the Holocaust. Kirchwey, writes Navasky, was ‘a leader on many issues—sexual freedom, birth control, democracy vs. Fascism and Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, collective security, refugees, McCarythism and censorship, the peaceful use of atomic energy, and Zionism’.
Reading Navasky’s book, I wished there was a similar account of India’s longest-running radical weekly, the Economic and Political Weekly. Many who read it—and all who write for it—regard the ‘EPW’ as this nation’s conscience. It began life in 1949 as the Economic Weekly, adding the ‘Political’ seventeen years later. Its founder-editor, Sachin Chaudhuri, was a bhadralok of catholic tastes who was too busy enjoying his life to write about it. His successor, the legendary Krishna Raj, had the opposite problem. He was a consistently self-effacing man, who would have regarded the genre of autobiography as an unnecessary form of self-advertisement. Perhaps some future historian will step into the breach, to trace the life of the Republic of India through the career of the EPW.
There are, it appears, some telling similarities between The Nation and the Economic and Political Weekly. For one, both are appallingly bad looking. The well loved columnist Calvin Trillin said of the American weekly that it was ‘probably the only magazine in the country if you make a Xerox of it, the Xerox looks a lot better than the original’. More substantively, they have a similar philosophy or credo, this, in Navasky’s words, being ‘to question the conventional wisdom, to be suspicious of all orthodoxies, to provide a home for dissent and dissenters, and to be corny about it, to hold forth a vision of a better world’.
A great Nation editor, Carey McWilliams, said that his journal differed from Time and Newsweek in exploring, in depth, the underlying meaning and import of the major events of the day. Newsmagazines are mostly written by a staff of experienced and full-time reporters. On the other hand, opinion journals draw much more on freelance contributors and university scholars. As the historian Christopher Lasch pointed out, with the onset of television and the dumbing down of the mass media, these journals had become ‘the only surviving media in which scholars can talk to each other. They give the intellectual community what little unity and coherence it retains’. That is true of The Nation; and even more so, one thinks, of the EPW.
There is another way in which the profitable glossy is to be distinguished from the poorly circulated journal of opinion. In the words of the critic Dwight Macdonald, ‘a “little magazine” is often more intensively read (and circulated) than the big commercial magazines, being a more individual expression and so appealing with a special force to individuals of like minds’. These journals are to be judged not by the bottom-line, but by their (often considerable) impact on shaping public policy and public debate and, beyond that even, by the love and loyalty of their readers.