Sam Tanenhaus

The New York Times Book Review, Part II

VTR Date: October 23, 2006

Biographer and editor Sam Tanenhaus discusses contemporary writing and books.


GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
VTR: 10/23/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and, aside from “Who have been your favorite guests over the past fifty years”, the question that has been put to me most often over this past half-century has, hands down, been – “Where do you get most of your guests”. And, quite honestly, my answer has always been – “from the New York Times Book Review”.

Not that The Open Mind is about books, per se. It’s not. It’s about ideas. But, thank goodness, books remain our major source of ideas … and the Sunday Times Book Review remains my major entry into the world of books.

Which is why I’ve asked Sam Tanenhaus, its rather new-ish top editor, to join me here once again today.

Himself the author of a much acclaimed biography about Whittaker Chambers, Mr. Tanenhaus has been working for some years on one about William F. Buckley, Jr., and recently wrote a quite compelling – though, I think, challengeable -essay/review of David S. Brown’s intellectual biography of the great American historian Richard Hofstadter … who was my teacher in days beyond recall.

Now, of course, I’ve wanted to ask my guest about all of these matters, and last week, we just didn’t get to many of them. So today, Mr. Tanenhaus I’m gong to begin with … first the question about the … Dick Hofstadter piece. My question about it was that I remembered Hofstadter as much more critical … from a far, far Left point of view … of the New Deal.

And somehow or other your, your essay didn’t point in that direction.

TANENHAUS: Well, initially he was and I do think I mentioned this … that in the American political tradition he was … which concludes with the Roosevelt years … and this was Hofstadter’s first great book, published in 1948.

He registered some skepticism about Roosevelt, but also argues that he broke through the incrustation of free market ideology that had dominated American politics for a long time.

And it’s true, as you say that the younger Hofstadter … he was, I think, 32 when his book was published … the Hofstadter of the 1930s who briefly belonged to the Communist Party was very much on the Left and the introduction to this book, The American Political Tradition, comes very much from the Left.

But Hofstadter I think was surveying the emergent forces of the Right and saw that Roosevelt was about as good as Liberalism was going to get … the best chance it would have. And really concludes on that note that Roosevelt would be the kind of beacon of any resurgent Liberalism in America.

Then in his next really major book, The Age of Reform, published, I think in 1955, there Hofstadter comes up with an entirely different view of Roosevelt that he was a kind of master of Keynesian economics and an inventor of the modern regulated state.

And I think what Hofstadter was responding to was the specter of McCarthyism. And the role of the mob. And Roosevelt with his patrician values, which the younger Hofstadter had mocked, now seemed to him a kind of caretaker of the better values in the, in the culture and the country. And so he became quite admiring of him.

HEFFNER: As you relate yourself to Hofstadter, what, what draws and pushes and pulls do you find in terms of your own work, your own great book on Whittaker Chambers? And the book you’re working on now about Bill Buckley?

TANENHAUS: Well, Hofstadter was the first major historian who took Conservatism seriously. That is to say from an early period, I think probably beginning with his single most influential piece, which was his study of the Right, included the Right Wing resurgence, included in an anthology edited by Daniel Bell, his Columbia colleague. Hofstadter brought in terms from sociology and psychoanalysis and talked about status politics and status anxiety and all the rest.

But what he identified, what he saw was that the new Conservatism of the post war period was cultural, rather than economic and that the great issues of the time were cultural. That’s a pretty good guess. It’s more than a guess, it’s a brilliant insight and one that’s still with us.

And in the essay I quote Hofstadter talking about mass man(CHECK WORDING) to use a different vocabulary and the power of television as a medium and how … there’s this wonderful phrase about how mass media creates an almost continual theater of politics in which people can translate their personal anxieties and resentments into these large political matters. And if that doesn’t capture what you see on cable television today or in the blogs … the kind of vitriol, the kind of sort of horror of detached analysis … well, nothing I know of does.

So Hofstadter saw that, he saw that America was in many ways actually a Conservative country, which was an unusual argument to make when one of the other, major books of the period Louis Hartz study of Liberalism, published in ’55, the same year as The Age of Reform … made the completely opposite argument, that America had a single tradition. You know the Liberal tradition in America, according to Hartz was the only tradition. And Hofstadter saw that there were Conservative impulses in the culture.

Now he saw them as irrational. And he saw them as being ultimately dangerous, and this is why many on the Right find it easy to dismiss Hofstadter because they think he was simply slandering them. But once you get past the surface of terminology, you see that Hofstadter is doing something very important, which is capturing a shift in the culture that was extraordinary. And I think it’s one reason he’s so relevant today.

HEFFNER: And Chambers and Buckley? How do they relate?

TANENHAUS: To Hofstadter?


TANENHAUS: Well, that’s an interesting question. Hofstadter has a reference to Alger Hiss who, of course, was Chambers great adversary in the spy trials of the late 1940s. I don’t know that he commented on Chambers, though it’s pretty clear what he would have thought of him … I believe.


TANENHAUS: Well, Hofstadter was very suspicious of what he called, at one point, the rural evangelical virus … the theology of politics. He didn’t really like the mixing of religion and politics and he had good reason not to, going back to the Founders.

And Chambers was very much a religious thinker and acter. Chambers’ language really gave us the language of Ronald Reagan … “the evil of empire” and the “focus of concentrated evil”, all this language of Reagan comes directly out of Chambers. And this was something Hofstadter was suspicious of.

Now he never wrote about Reagan, but he wrote at great length, as you know, about Barry Goldwater who was really the antecedent to Reagan. Reagan emerged directly from the Goldwater movement. And Hofstadter was very suspicious of that.

On the other hand, Hofstadter with his erudition and social and cultural knowledge would well have known that Chambers had been a friend of Hofstadter’s great friend Lionel Trilling. That he had been a friend of Meyer Shapiro and these were two of the great eminences at Columbia when Hofstadter was there. So Hofstadter would have had a sense of Chambers’ complexity.

Buckley I think he probably never quite “got”. Buckley actually wrote a very brilliant critique of Hofstadter in which he said, “Why is it that Hofstadter analyzes Democrats and psychoanalyzes Republicans?”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

TANENHAUS: I think in the end I think he would have seen the wit and elegance of Buckley’s mind. But you’ll remember, you’ve been watching the scene for a long time now, the young Buckley was not this kind of … master of detachment and civility we know now. He was always a gentleman in his personal dealings. But he was a flamethrower, he was a McCarthy-ite and that’s the, the Buckley Hofstadter would have known.

And there’s one more facet to add to this. Hofstadter wrote a couple of very important books, as you well know, on academic freedom. And Buckley’s first and most influential book, God and Man at Yale, raised some very sharp questions about prevailing ideas of academic freedom. And there in Hofstadter’s first book on academic freedom you’ll see some references to Buckley.

HEFFNER: What about your own politics? One looks at your writings, aside from the early volume on literature and we see a major, major, major figure in the Conservative movement.

TANENHAUS: You mean Chambers?

HEFFNER: I, I meant Chambers, but I could have used …


HEFFNER: … the name Buckley.


HEFFNER: How do we account for this?

TANENHAUS: Well, you know, I sometimes say my politics are to the right of William Buckley’s and the left of Gore Vidal’s … or maybe it’s the other way around.

To me politics is a subject of almost novelistic and dramatic interest. I want to know where the stories are. I’m a journalist. And it’s funny … the Chambers book is being published in England, 10 years after it was published here, in the winter and I’m working on an introduction now.

And I find myself, as I describe how I came to write the book, calling it really a work of journalistic reconstruction, rather than a necessarily a scholarly biography. Now it has many pages of notes and, and I dug through materials in some 35 archives, including new material released from … in some cases, sneaked out of Soviet archives … but really I wrote it as a journalist, someone who wanted to tell a story.

And I think in the last half century Hofstadter was right, the, the interesting political story is the rise of Conservatism. Now Chambers was interesting to me initially because he, himself has covered the spectrum. We think of Chambers as a hero of the Right, but the man after all was a Stalinist spy and, in the parlance of the day, a literary Bolshevik … he was the editor of the Communist Party’s literary magazine, The New Masses for some of the 1930s.

And he was a protégé of Mark van Doren at Columbia, who was very much on the Left and Chambers was his first and most gifted pupil, poet, short story writer. So Chambers to me seemed one of these all encompassing figures who, if you reduced its life … his life down to its basic datum, it was someone who’d begun on the Left and migrated to the Right.

And in one way or another, that was the story of his intellectual generation … of Hofstadter himself, to some degree. So that’s how I saw Chambers, as a great dramatic figure to write about.

Buckley’s life has been very different, but he seems to me big in a similar way. His is a more public life than Chambers. Chambers had only one really great public moment and that was …

HEFFNER: The trial.

TANENHAUS: His trial. The Congressional hearings and then the two perjury trials. Buckley’s life has been public from a very early age. But Buckley made Conservatism, or helped make it the ascendant movement in American politics. And that’s the interest to me.

So it’s not to say I think everything he said was right or wrong. I think some of it was right and some of it wasn’t. I think he had brilliant insights, I think Buckley was a great critic of Liberalism. He analyzed Liberalism with the kind of flair that Hofstadter brought to analyzing Conservatism.

And I think we would all agree at this point that a certain kind of Liberalism lost a good deal of luster partly because of the challenge and critique that Buckley era conservatives were able to make. So Buckley just seems to me a very big figure in that way. And that’s my interest. My own politics have almost nothing to do with it.

HEFFNER: Almost … do you want to define …

TANENHAUS: Yes. That’s a fair question. I say “almost” because I’m one of these very bland, unregistered liberal democrats who are boring as soon as they open their mouths. And so what politics has to do with the books that I’ve been writing is to help me educate myself. It’s sometimes infuriating and exasperating to write about these figures, figures like Chambers and Buckley because they’re right at times when you don’t at first see it, or one is included to impute motives to them. In other words, they hold a mirror up to the writer, to the author, biographer in my case, which I find very instructive. And they’re smarter than I am. And journalists like me, enjoy the company of people who can teach us.

HEFFNER: If, if you, Sam, want to maintain this modest posture, god bless you … you, you keep it, I’m not going to try to …

TANENHAUS: It’s well earned, believe me.

HEFFNER: Tell me about the book now coming out in England, are there any problems that you face in terms of libel law or anything like that? That you didn’t face here?

TANENHAUS: Oh, oh, I don’t think so. Well, first of all, all the major figures are dead and I think the same rules apply. But I faced no libel difficulties here … I told the truth. The only …

HEFFNER: Since when was the truth …

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … an adequate answer?

TANENHAUS: The only question that actually that came up was the painful one that almost every biographer deals with, particularly if the subject live fairly recently … Chambers died in ’61 …

HEFFNER: The papers.

TANENHAUS: Yeah, the papers and being able to quote. But I was able to track a lot down. There was not a Chambers collection anywhere, which meant that I was on an almost continual hunt for documentation. But quoting can be difficult because one needs the permission of the literary estate. In this case, in the person of Chambers son and daughter. And subjects of biographies are often reluctant to do that. That was the only issue I faced. But there were no legal questions beyond that.

HEFFNER: And the Bill Buckley book? I know you have a day job.

TANENHAUS: Yes, I have a day job.

HEFFNER: What can we anticipate?

TANENHAUS: Well, I wrote one small piece of it … published about a year ago in the Sunday Times magazine …


TANENHAUS: … on Buckley’s mayoral run, which is a wonderful escapade in modern American politics. And I hope to write more of the book soon in that vein. That is to say to find key moments in, in Buckley’s life where his ideas and, and actions converge and to use them prismatically to tell the story of the life. It’s a hugely active life with a … and there’s a gigantic archive behind it. It’s a lot of work to do. And as you say, I have a day job … but I’m doing the best I can.

HEFFNER: You know I want to turn now to something I didn’t ask you in our first discussion last week. It has to do with the question that I always put to journalists, most of whom come in here, sit down and say, … when I talk about power … they say, “There’s nobody in here but us chickens. We really have no power.”

You certainly didn’t just concede but you stated very bluntly that good reviews and bad reviews in The Times are quite significant. What responsibility do you feel, special responsibilities do you feel that you have to the literary effort in America. To the publishing effort in America. Where do you have to play some leadership role?

TANENHAUS: Well, leadership role … that’s …


TANENHAUS: … that’s a big question. I think we stand at the crossroads where the literary world, the publishing world and the newspaper world all converge. We’re in a funny place. Publishers see us, sometimes, as an almost … an extension of their publicity department and we’re not. We cover books, the way the Washington Bureau covers the White House.

We are there to let you know what’s going on as best we can. Now we’re critics, think of our critics as being the equivalent of columnists. I think we do have a responsibility to the literary culture and mainly to remind readers of its relevance.

Now that’s … can be complicated, too, because sometimes the best way for a reader to learn about a book is to read something pretty sharp that’s written about it. Not that we ever encourage viewers to do exactly that. But we don’t shy away from it when we get reviews like that. And some of the reviewers we use, some of the exceptional ones … Walter Kirn is an example … a brilliant writer, a brilliant critic … is very direct in, in his assessments, in his judgments. And we trust him. We think he’s writing out of no particular animus, we think he is a really subtle and shrewd sense of the literary scene.

But we think the most important thing is to get people to read about books. And we would never do it irresponsibly. But we don’t want to be simply a bland vehicle for the latest news from publishers. So we’re in an, we’re in an awkward position at times.

HEFFNER: Those damn bloggers …

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … as I know them. Frequently when they write about you and write about the Book Review feel that you have sold out to public affairs interests; that you focus so much on books about the contemporary political scene that literature gets short shrift. Is there any truth to that?

TANENHAUS: No, there’s not. And I wish I could have a direct conversation with some of them because the answer would be very simple. We have a staff of about half a dozen editors, two who are our main fiction previewers, as we call them. Not as editors who look at advance reading copies as they come in. Now we all have some interest in fiction and, and in some instances an intense interest in fiction.

When Richard Ford’s new novel came in, we were all scrabbling to get a’hold of the galley. And it’s a wonderful book. But what I want to say is, there has not been a single instance when either of these two very skilled editors … Alida Becker and Dwight Garner who were at the Book Review before I got there. Not a single instance when they said, “We should review X novel or Y book of poetry”, Dwight also handles poetry, where I said we shouldn’t. On the contrary I’ve encouraged them to get as much of it reviewed as possible. So what … those who are concerned … and to be fair, I don’t think it’s just bloggers, bloggers may find this the most convenient, attractive case to make.

But there have been others who wonder about this when they look at our Contents page. The fact is there is three or four times as much non-fiction published as fiction. And within non-fiction, the non-fiction realm there is a large number of major categories … history, philosophy, religion, economics, science … each of which, in its own way can make a claim to our attention that fiction might.

So, to achieve the balance we do, particularly if you compare us to other book review sections, particularly the major literary publications … New York Review, The New Yorker, The New Republic … we actually do quite a bit more fiction than almost all of them. The sheer number of titles we do in a year is quite voluminous. And in addition to that we put as much of our muscle, as it were, behind new fiction as we can.

So, for instance, two novels that we gave a great deal of space and attention to were Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics and Calamity Physics and Claire Messud’s new novel, The Emperor’s Children, which is a wonderful, brilliant book; I think in its way the 9/11 book, although it’s not about 9/11 at all. And both of them became best sellers in large part, we think, because of the attention we gave them.

Now, the, the final piece I’ll add to that is we do far more poetry than the section has done at any time since it was edited by Harvey Shapiro, who was a published poet and we made him do more than he … we have a regular poetry columnist, which the section never had before, a brilliant young writer named David Orr. Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems were on our cover, even though there was no new work in it. John Asbury’s most recent collection was on our cover. So we pay a great deal of attention to poetry. And those who are reading us closely are aware of this. In fact, when I meet with people at the publishing houses, the really established house … Knopf, Farrar Straus, places like that. They’ll comment, with pleasant surprise at just how much fiction we do. Again, leaving poetry aside altogether because we do so much of it. So that, that’s a misconception, but the world is filled with misconceptions and one does not have time to redress them all.

HEFFNER: Of course, our time is almost up. I would ask you what are the new directions that you foresee … directions in which you will take the Book Review?

TANENHAUS: Well, I would like us to do more literary profiles. We have a staff reporter, which the section never before, Rachel Donadio who’s written quite elegant and important essays on V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion among others. She now at work on a major profile … can’t say who the subject is …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

TANENHAUS: … but a very important literary figure, a figure from the world of poetry. We’d like to do more of that. We would like to integrate our children’s book coverage more fully into the adult coverage. This is a golden age for children’s literature. My daughter is only one of many children who are absolutely enthralled by J. K. Rowling. And there are others, too, so we’d like to combine those two more. And also we’re going to start looking different. Which may not sound like much.

HEFFNER: Looking different?

TANENHAUS: Yes, we have a brilliant new Art Director, who has come in and his predecessor, a very distinguished Art Director, Steve Heller, decided to step down after almost 30 years at the job. That means he lasted through many transients like me … we think this is the most significant change we’ll make. And I would never have thought that when I took the job. I didn’t give much thought to how it looks, but now that I’m inside editing the magazine, I, I see how important it is. And his name is Nicholas Blechman our new Art Director and he began earlier this month, and in the next several months you’ll begin to see a new look for the Book Review.

HEFFNER: I have to end the program, Sam Tanenhaus by saying, I’m always scared to death when somebody is changing a look. But I look forward to seeing what you’re doing. Thank you so much for joining me again today.

TANENHAUS: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.