On “The New Republic”

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David A. Bell in the LA Review of Books:

The old TNR did not end with a financial whimper, but a massive and unnecessary bang, courtesy of the new owner (and reported on in copious detail by former staffer Ryan Lizza, now working for The New Yorker). But even if a quiet slide into bankruptcy had precipitated TNR’s fall, the event would have posed the same questions: What did it really represent in American life? What future, if any, remains for institutions like it? To what extent can individual publications retain even their identity, to say nothing of their influence, in an age of social media?

To start answering these questions, a little history is in order.

Magazines like TNR are, fundamentally, creations of the 18th century. It was then that the basic format appeared: weekly or monthly periodicals that published various mixtures of news reports and analysis, opinion columns, book reviews, and the occasional poetry or fiction (not to mention, in a pre-phonograph age, sheet music). The Tatler and The Spectator, founded in Britain early in the century, quickly found imitators across the continent and then in the Americas. The point was to instruct and persuade, but to do so in an engaging, indeed entertaining manner: the essays were short enough to read in a single sitting, and full of witty anecdotes. Not coincidentally, it was in one of these magazines, the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly) that the philosopher Immanuel Kant published his great 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment,” in which he associated human progress with the ability of the public to make free use of its reason — i.e., for its members to argue rationally with each other. (The same issue included, among other things, articles on Jewish education, on a machine that supposedly spoke and played chess, and on a Berlin astrologer.) Kant understood that in a society where few people had the learning and leisure to engage in advanced philosophical discussions, printed periodicals were the level at which the public use of reason would mostly take place.

In TNR’s first issue, published in the fall of 1914, the magazine embraced this tradition, pledging itself to a version of Kant’s ideal.

More here.

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