This interview by Robert Birnbaum was published in Identity Theory on March 16, 2012.
Robert Birnbaum: Historian and publisher of the renascent Baffler magazine, John H. Summershas not exactly taken a direct route to heading a publication whose significance he compares to Dwight Macdonald’s mid-century journal, Politics. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he ended up attending George Mason University and the University of Rochester. After which he spent seven years as an adjunct professor at Harvard, an experience he recounts in an article entitled “All the Privileged Must Have Prizes,” my reading of which first brought him to my attention. That piece concludes: “But the sedulous banality of the rich degrades teaching into a service-class preoccupation whose chief duty is preparing clients for monied careers. The liberal flattery of the student is both sentimental and irrelevant. If youth is wasted on the young, is teaching wasted on students? Teaching on the part-time staff at Harvard is a little like visiting Disney World. The magic dust induces a light narcosis. The mind goes incontinent in the presence of paradox and conflict, and it is tough to tell how much fun you are having from how much you are having to pretend. The important thing is never to become the screamer who ruins the ride for everyone. The line is long.” Summers has published The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills and an essay collection, Every Fury on Earth. Recently he edited Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald (New York Review Books). In the chat that follows, we talk of the winding road and razor’s edge that brought John Summers to the adventurous world of 21st-century publishing and The Baffler, as well as chatting about recent child abuse scandals, the contents of the new Baffler, what a great guy George Scialabba is, Summers’ thoughts on teaching at Harvard and class in the United States.
RB: You’re British?
John Summers: No.
RB: Why do I think you are British?
JS: Because you haven’t been to rural Pennsylvania.
RB: No, I haven’t.
JS: My family has been there since the 18th century.
RB: Oh, I wanted to speak with the British John Summers (oh well). You were educated as what—you aspired to be a scholar?
JS: Neither of my parents went to college. Somehow their higher expectations fell onto me, and I went to college. I didn’t know why or what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until about two years after I graduated.
RB: Where did you attend college?
JS: James Madison University, in rural Virginia.
RB: Why did you choose that school?
JS: I applied to half a dozen schools. Neither my parents nor I knew what we were doing.
RB: Why did they want you to go to college?
JS: That’s an interesting question because on my father’s side there was little respect for secular knowledge. I guess they were interested in the possibility of me getting a job and some measure of prestige.
RB: Were they poor?
JS: No. My grandfather had started a small company—heating and plumbing and electrical supplies—in the 60s. My father later took it over. In the 80s business was good. I lived with my mother—my parents were divorced—and we didn’t have much money. But my father and grandfather prospered in the 80s and 90s before the housing boom crashed and the company was lost. But, no, I never missed a meal or wondered where the next one was coming from.
RB: Were there a lot of books in your house?
JS: There were almost none except a handful of business tracts—Russell Conwell’s Acres of Diamonds, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
RB: You said your father didn’t have much respect for secular knowledge—was he a religious man?
JS: Yes, he’s not very pious, at least as far as I know, but like everyone else in our part of Pennsylvania, he’s religious.
RB: I wondered why you chose the phrase “secular knowledge”?
JS: I’m not altogether sure myself. Well, that’s the quality of knowledge that I have come to—and that has led me to think of myself as a non-believer. I think coming to that realization was the immediate and unanticipated effect of sending me to college. But the longer-term effect, which happened in graduate school, was to essentially alienate me from my home community and the kind of lives, the mental lives, into which I was born.
RB: Where in rural Pennsylvania did you grow up?
JS: You’ve heard of that.
RB: Doesn’t Getty Oil own that?
JS: Like most small towns, it’s effectively owned by a couple of businessmen—but here the heritage industry is booming. I wrote a piece about this a couple of years ago. Yeah, Gettysburg sells history. So I was a tour guide…
RB: I was in Galena, Illinois [birthplace of U.S. Grant] in the mid 70s—same thing. It seemed inauthentic.
JS: Authenticity/non-authenticity is the wrong distinction. The awful fact remains that a great number of people died on those grounds.
RB: Not in the town—where commerce takes place celebrating a by-gone era. So after you graduated college, you figured out your vocation?
JS: No. After college, I went to work in Washington, D.C. for a reference publisher—a job that I got by answering an ad in the Washington Post. And in my spare time, I began to read. One of the books I read was Bright Shining Lie by Neal Sheehan. Do you know it?
JS: I was reading that book one summer on the living room of my mom’s house, and one of our neighbors came by—she’s a philosophy professor at Gettysburg College—and she said, “You really ought to think about going to graduate school if you are going to read a 700-page book!” Well, it’s a fairly serious book, I suppose she thought, for a 23-year-old to be voluntarily reading—in our area, at least.
RB: I am fascinated by an academic seeing a young man reading a book, as evidence for his furthering his education.
JS: She had been observing me since I was about eight. She’s an old and dear family friend. She put the idea of education in my head after college. My grades had been terrible. I was put on academic probation until the middle of my sophomore year. I wasn’t much of a student.
RB: What were you doing?
JS: Drinking beer. Playing basketball. Getting laid. Pretty much all I cared about was playing basketball and swilling beer.
RB: Any sexual abuse stories you care to share?
JS: Oh, I bet if you asked any number of young men, they will tell you that they were touched or that they were fondled when they were 13 or 14 or 15 by some older man—and, yes, I do remember that happening to me. In high school, I remember being plied with beer and playing poker at a certain restaurant in downtown Gettysburg where the man, the owner of the joint, would stay late with his cronies and invite a bunch of my friends to stay too. I can remember shooing his hand off my upper thigh—nothing went further than that because I was able to defend myself.
RB: I discovered a sports writer recently [out of Philadelphia]—he had written an interesting piece on Bobby Valentine [the new Boston Red Sox manager].
JS: And he is now under suspicion [of sexual abuse of minors].
RB: Yes. The stuff that I read by him was first-rate—both the prose and the breadth of information—
JS: Why does that surprise you that someone who is good at writing would also fondle boys?
RB: Mildly shocked—I don’t know why, but I felt an emotional jolt—I was engaging with this guy and all of sudden I am faced with these unsavory allegations. It’s a little hard to process.
JS: Writers are not always the best human beings.
RB: Anyway, this sudden flurry of cases does lead one to suspect that this is vastly underreported—
JS: What happened to me was common enough and didn’t leave any scars. It was just, “Get your fucking hand off my knee, man.” That’s as far as it went. I guess if I had put myself in a more vulnerable position, then something traumatic could have happened. My point is that this kind of touching—it also happens within families.
RB: There are short stories—frequently southern short stories in which the family warns the youngsters to stay away from Uncle Lester.
RB: And they all know, and in a familial way they quarantine Uncle Lester. Anyway, you were motivated to go to graduate school, still not knowing what you wanted to do.
JS: I began to take night classes at George Mason University to test out my interest—and because my academic record wasn’t good enough to get in anywhere else. I got lucky because Mason had an open program at the Master’s level. And it happened to have the late Roy Rosenzweig—one of the best social historians of his generation and one of the best men I’ve ever known—as well as Lawrence Levine who was also a well-known and accomplished historian. Roy took me under his wing, so to speak, and mentored me as a young academic. He prepared me to apply to graduate school at the doctoral level. Which I did. So I spent three years working full time at the publisher in D.C. and taking night classes at George Mason to get myself in shape enough to go to graduate school. I was excited by ideas—the idea of ideas. I still had no idea what I wanted to do or what I wanted to study. But I do remember the moment where I became intoxicated. It occurred after a class taught by Michael O’Malley—who is still at George Mason—on Money and American Culture. After every class I would walk with him to his car to follow up and ask him questions. I could feel entirely new systems of thought opening up to me. And I was just flummoxed. But even then I couldn’t have said much about what I wanted to study, or that I wanted to be an intellectual historian, or anything like that. I went to the University of Rochester because I got a fellowship there, and it turned out that Christopher Lasch, whom I hadn’t heard of before I got there, had died some months before. From his friend and colleague, Robert Westbrook, I learned history as a form of cultural criticism. And this is really the point at which the idea of being a public intellectual, the idea of writing clearly, the importance of writing clearly, the ethics of writing clearly, trying to speak clearly, trying to address oneself to public issues, to be aware of and concerned about democratic society—all these things came together at Rochester. Rochester never made me choose between writing a professional paper and writing for the newspaper.
RB: Which newspaper?
JS: The local newspaper and magazines. I did both. I’d never written before.
RB: I attended Roosevelt University—perhaps famous for refusing Staughton Lynd tenure and for turning down Lasch’s offer to procure the FDR papers for the school.
JS: Really smart move. I don’t know about that. But Roosevelt wasn’t Lynd’s only rejection.
RB: Oh that’s right, you reviewed a biography of Lynd.
JS: Yeah, that was fun.
RB: I was struck by something in Louis Menand’s introduction to the Dwight Macdonald book you edited—he said something about Macdonald not having the characteristics of being an academic but that of being a good journalist. Which are you?
JS: Definitely neither.
RB: Definitely. (laughs)
JS: I’m a critic and a historian; historical knowledge and methods animate everything that I write. I think of The Baffler as advancing a genre of cultural criticism which is neither journalism nor academic scholarship, strictly
speaking, but draws from both.
RB: What is the publication one might compare The Baffler to?
JS: Dwight Macdonald’s Politics is the best radical journal in modern US history…
RB: Not Partisan Review?
JS: Maybe Partisan Review in the 40s. These journals don’t last long typically. Usually they burn out. In that regard The Baffler, despite its irregular publication history, is an exception. It’s published 18 issues, and we now have a contract for 15 more. By the time we are finished, it will be one of the longest-running radical journals around. Partisan Review was around for a long time too, but who read it after the 60s?
RB: Here’s a continuum, and tell me where The Baffler falls—New York Review of Books and Lapham’s Quarterly.
JS: Well, the New York Review publishes some political essays, but for the most part the subjects are established by the books under review. Lapham’s—I don’t know how they make their editorial decisions. We’re publishing original, long-form art and criticism.
RB: The last thing Tony Judt wrote for the NYRB was not based on a book.
JS: You’re right—they run free-floating essays. But the specialty of The Baffler is long-form essays; we have 9,000- and 10,000-word essays, respectively, in the issue.
RB: The content for each issue is decided by whom, sitting around a table?
JS: Well, Tom and Chris live in D.C.
JS: Email and telephone supplemented by meetings in New York, keep us in touch well enough.
RB: Is there an art director?
JS: Yes, his name is Patrick Flynn. Patrick has had a long career in art direction, and we feel lucky to have his mature sense of the graphically absurd. Patrick lives in Madison. Edwin Frank of the New York Review Books edited the poetry in the issue. He lives in New York, of course. And Tom and Chris are in D.C. But a lot happens in Cambridge. Genie Williamson, our associate editor, lives in my neighborhood. She has a keen ear for voice. And George Scialabba—a great and loyal friend of mine, my daughter’s godfather, a brilliant writer and critic, The BafflerFoundation’s treasurer, the journal’s associate editor—is at my apartment, talking literature with my wife, Anna, our literary editor, several nights a week over dinner. I’ve found journal publishing gratifyingly collaborative.
RB: So there is no departure from the past Bafflers—yet this is a hell of a climate to publish something, with an established name or without.
JS: A bad climate or a good climate?
RB: Personally, I don’t think it’s bad—the book is not disappearing, reading is not disappearing, but…
JS: I think you are right.
RB: Yet it is something of a pastime for those concerned with these issues to go all Chicken Little and cry about the decline of book culture.
JS: One can argue about this endlessly. Maybe we’ll fail. It’s possible. But the question for me personally has been, if we do fail—which is to say, if we don’t attract enough readers—then will all this work have been worth doing for a year, two years? Will I think, on the other side of a few years, that I wasted my time? And I doubt I would think so.
RB: I want to know who is going to be interested in these ideas—and does it attach to progressive activism that hasn’t been present for some time? Do you have the expectation that The Baffler will be a kind of call to action—progressive political activity?
JS: That’s a very odd word.
RB: Political? Progressive?
JS: Progressive. One wants to be on guard against any word that doesn’t immediately suggest an antonym.
RB: (laughs) Regressive.
JS: There are people who would consider themselves regressive, I guess. The reason the word is suspicious is because this journal devotedly criticizes dominant conceptions of progress on offer from left and right.
RB: Being a champion of progress and technology digitalization doesn’t seem like it is for the long haul—digital data and info won’t last 1,000 years. Books will, hieroglyphics will.
JS: Will they?
RB: I think—there’s better evidence to suggest they will than that my mini disc will.
JS: One reason that they [new technologies] won’t last is that companies sabotage their products.
RB: Previously known as a planned obsolescence.
JS: I don’t know if it’s true, but one hears that information never dies on the Internet. It’s always there, in some form.
RB: Lots of websites have disappeared. Where are they or the info they contained?
JS: I would be happy if some of my e-mails would disappear. [laughs]
RB: I would characterize your mood and aspirations as very hopeful. What worries you?
JS: At the moment, my four-month-old son, Misha.
RB: Is he sleeping?
JS: Only when we are awake.
RB: How long have you been trying to raise money for this endeavor?
JS: [laughs] On and off for about nine months. After about two weeks I was pretty well tired of it.
RB: I share your aversion to that part of publishing. It’s hard to deal with people who have lots of money and then they say things that you think are stupid…
JS: It’s not so much that but their sense of entitlement. Social class enters in this sense—it’s not just that some people have greater sums of money than other people. It’s that the people who have money expect, unconsciously, that those of us who don’t have money will behave on social terms set by them. They are in charge. Raising money is the art of recognizing this. I am informed this is common sense.
RB: Have you been reading about the latest brouhaha about James Franco’s behavior as a student? I bring it up because of allegations that Franco felt entitled to special treatment and that piece you wrote about your Harvard teaching experience.
JS: I hadn’t even been to Massachusetts before I took that job in 2000, which I got in the most accidental manner. I was living in Austin doing research in the C. Wright Mills papers there. And I grew concerned that, as much American intellectual history as I had learned at Rochester, I didn’t know enough about European social theory to write properly about Mills, who had been immersed in it. I aired this concern to a professor of mine, who responded, “Why don’t you go to Harvard and teach social theory there?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I know a person who could hire you.” A couple of e-mails later I had an appointment to come up, and there I was. Presto.
RB: You were recommended for teaching a subject that you worried you didn’t know enough about?
JS: My worrying was credible enough, I guess. I learned a lot, and still appreciate the seven years I spent teaching social theory at Harvard. Some of my students I am still quite close to.
RB: I have a 14-year-old son—should I want him to go to college?
JS: It’s an interesting subject to raise. I am glad I went to college and graduate school. I am glad I taught at Harvard. I wouldn’t take back any of it.
RB: Had you not gone to school, would you not have been reading?
JS: Historians don’t like counterfactuals, so I’ll beg off.
RB: [laughs] Perhaps my son would be better off going into the Merchant Marine and then deciding what was next.
JS: Well, you don’t know what you don’t know until you are exposed to things that you hadn’t known. There’s a reason to go to college.
RB: Right—I don’t sense that’s what’s being promulgated.
JS: I had this one student—we used to call him “The Senator.” Clearly, this is what he wanted. We are on our third week of Marx, and he’s doing well. Then he comes to me and asks me to write him a recommendation letter to work on Wall Street in the summer. In theory, one could read Marx with appreciation and decide to study capital on Wall Street, but that’s not what he was about. Reading Marx was a purely formal exercise for “The Senator.” Another data point for the GPA. What he really wanted to do was get ahead—and fast. To me it [education] was deeply personal, unsettling, almost intimate. College didn’t do much for me, but graduate school really changed my life and to some extent changed my personality. So all of that I felt in a personal way. And I expected—I am sure unfairly for many of my Harvard students—that they would bring to their studies the same attitude. I just assumed it. That was a limitation on my part. It made me a good teacher for certain kinds of students—those from rural backgrounds, or those whose parents didn’t go to Ivy League schools. I have long and continuing conversations with these students. But those who went to Andover, those whose parents went to Harvard, those who felt as a matter of course that they belonged and that the books and the ideas and the teachers represented just so many levels on the educational elevator into the elite, I found them difficult to reach.
RB: Jamaica Kincaid taught at Harvard for a while, and she said the students were bright but didn’t seem to have general knowledge.
JS: They have a broad knowledge of the world—it’s just formal and abstract. The problem is not that they are all in fact one-percenters, of course. It’s that the one-percent kind of wealth sets the standard they all feel they must answer to. I had a student who was president of the student council. And he ended up writing his senior thesis with me. It was about Harvard and liberal education. And we counted out together the number of vice presidents and secretaries and treasurers there were on campus. It was somewhere in the hundreds.
RB: Of the university?
JS: All the clubs, all the organizations. In this way they grow over-socialized. And the socialization is bent in one particular direction. Consulting, approved non-profits, Wall Street.
RB: Have you read David Graeber?
JS: I have read and talked extensively with David. And I’m publishing him in the issue. His essay is called “On Flying Cars and the Falling Rate of Profit,” and the subject is technological disappointment. Almost everyone, left and right, assumes we are living in an era of tech abundance. Not so.
RB: What else is in the next Baffler?
JS: Our lead essay is Tom’s “Too Stupid to Fail,” and it’s about wrongness as a form of social mobility among public intellectuals and pundits and columnists. Tom’s idea is that among such insiders it’s not merely forgivable to be wrong about a major national event—a war in the Middle East, or a housing bubble, for example. It’s required. You must have been blatantly wrong about a major event in order to demonstrate that you’re cool, that you’re a member in good standing of the A-team.
JS: Well, you can be skeptical, but wait until you read it.
RB: No, no, I was thinking that my colleagues at The Morning News just offered up their opinions on what was the most important and least important things of the year. One of them, which no one mentioned, was the US withdrawal [such as it was] from Iraq. Has that had any impact on you?
JS: Well, I have been following the story.
RB: Has it any significance to you?
JS: How about hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis?
RB: Senator McCain was critical of our withdrawal—why do that now? Anyway, who else?
JS: Barbara Ehrenreich, Rick Perlstein, Jim Newell, James K. Galbraith, and Moe Tkacik, who wonders whether The Atlantic magazine is a CIA front or just looks that way. That’s a good piece. How do I know? Because already I’ve heard from the magazine’s general counsel. The piece began with a simple question that’s no doubt crossed the minds of thousands: what happened to this once-reputable magazine? Why is it so reliably bad? One thing I never suspected—but now understand to be the case—is that it’s deliberately bad. We have some terrific poetry, too, and fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson, Chris Brown, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. And Chris Lehmann on Ernest Poole, and more.
RB: I started to read The Harbor by Poole. Something magazines don’t do in the USA that is done in Britain and Europe is a listing of “Recently Published” or “Recently Received Books.” Not reviews, just notices.
JS: We could turn out a whole issue of “Books Received.”
RB: Well, using some kind of idiosyncratic decision process. Wislawa Syzmborska published a sweet little monograph called Non Required Reading where she talked about that and made a point of distinguishing books that are read from books that are reviewed.
JS: Yeah, many of the books that are reviewed are reviewed widely in the same kinds of publications.
RB: The issue is launching in March—what do you call a launch?
JS: We present the issue to the public in person. In Cambridge, we’ll be at Harvard Book Store on April 9. Tom Frank, Chris Lehmann, the whole gang.
RB: And the next issue is in June—you’re already working on that no doubt.
JS: June, yes. We have Jed Perl on “laissez-faire aesthetics,” Tom Frank on NPR, and Steve Almond on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for starters. Some Hindi fiction, poetry, and more essays in development. Then we’re onto the October issue. The Baffler has had this checkered past, in terms of its publication history.
RB: Meaning no one knew when it was being published?
JS: That’s right. All that’s ended now.
RB: Because you are a regular guy? (laughs)
JS: Because we’re under contract. Forgot to mention that we are publishing a James Agee manuscript in this issue. This is the first publication of an essay that’s been sequestered, quarantined for 76 years. Nobody has ever seen it.
RB: Who had it?
JS: A biographer who was doing research on Agee for many decades had acquired it more or less directly from Agee’s apartment after his sudden death in 1955. It hasn’t existed in any public collection since then. But the biographer passed away not long ago never having finished his [Agee] book. Now there are some 60 boxes of Agee manuscript material lying in the Iowa home of the deceased biographer’s friend. And this [article] emerged out of those boxes. The whole article is 30,000 words. I’m running around 9,000 with some rare Walker Evans photographs in a department I’m calling “Ancestors.” Which is a reference to the same department that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s Politics magazine in the 40s. I’m publishing the full 30,000-word article as a stand-alone book, with a new introduction by Adam Haslett, soon.
RB: Who had the rare Evans photos?
JS: Most of them are from the Farm Security Administration cache at the Library of Congress.
RB: Isn’t there a recent book of FSA photos?
JS: Yes, there was a discussion in the New York Times about it. John Hill, Evans’s former executor, prepared the digital files for us.
RB: Good—let’s talk again.
JS: After we have 50,000 subscribers…
RB: And the toast of the town. Thanks.