Goodbye, TNR

If you hear anyone say, “Good grief, The New Republic isn’t dead, it’s just moving to New York and transitioning from being a magazine to being a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’ — you can safely ignore that person. The New Republic is dead and Chris Hughes killed it. You can rejoice in that fact, lament it, feel nothing; but it remains a fact.

In 1975 I was a college freshman with a part-time job and, consequently, a few dollars in my pocket for the first time in my life. Somewhere I came across an ad for discount magazine subscriptions, and in a heady moment I subscribed to three: the Village Voice, New Times, and The New Republic. The first two interested me, to some degree, but I didn’t renew. TNR I stuck with. I was occasionally intrigued, occasionally appalled, occasionally enlightened, always fascinated. The magazine’s combination of social liberalism and Cold War hawkery — a mixture that at the time found its chief Congressional proponent in Scoop Jackson — was something I had never seen before. I half-resisted it, half-apprenticed myself to it.

I kept my subscription for most of the next twenty years, though every few years I would cancel in disgust. I remember being particularly angered when a brash young editor named Andrew Sullivan ran what struck me as a pointlessly mean-spirited hit piece on Barbara Bush. That kept me away for a while; but eventually I came back. Until about five years ago I always came back. TNR was the one magazine I truly cared about, and it was a very big day for me when Leon Wieseltier, who edited the reviews, ran a commendatory review of one of my books.

By that time I had stopped pitching pieces to the magazine. I had tried for about fifteen years, off and on, and had never received a word of acknowledgement. (I was strangely gratified when I heard, just a few years ago, that when David Foster Wallace had asked to review a book Wieseltier hadn’t deemed him worthy of a response either.) But those long essay-reviews that Wieseltier ran remained a model for much of my own periodical writing. Even when they were wrong, or widely considered wrong, they were confident, expansive, audacious in the scope of their claims: think of Wieseltier’s own infamous hatchet-job on Cornel West, or Martha Nussbaum’s incisive (I say) demolition of Judith Butler, or Ruth Franklin’s nuanced and complex reading of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones.

These lengthy essays, and many like them, generated important conversations, and I don’t know whether there are many periodicals in America who still publish reflections on books that are so ambitious. Probably the New York Review of Books comes closest, though with some exceptions the NYRB reviews are more strictly “reviews,” less bold in their claims, more politely muted.

The front of TNR’s book was rarely so vivid, to me anyway, since I am not a policy wonk. But until a few years ago I read it faithfully. And until I few years ago I was usually a subscriber. The fact that I haven’t been subscribing recently, after so long a relationship with the magazine, may suggest that Chris Hughes had some justification for blowing the thing up. I don’t know. I just know that I’m sad, and I hope that I can find elsewere some of the things that, to me, made TNR special.