A Life in the Fray
A new memoir by Martin Peretz, the former owner and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, provides a timely reminder of what American journalism has lost.
A review of The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone Left Right and Center by Martin Peretz, 351 pages, Wicked Son (July 2023)
In 1974, Martin Peretz purchased the New Republic magazine, which had been the preeminent weekly journal of liberal journalism and opinion in the United States since it was founded in 1914. The price was $380,000, roughly 2.3 million in 2023 dollars. Peretz served as the magazine’s publisher and guiding spirit until he sold it in 2011 as it faced financial pressures from “free news” on the Internet and the slow collapse of the liberal center in American politics and intellectual life. In those 37 years, Peretz used his money, political judgment, and intellectual engagement to support the kind of weekly journal that no longer exists in the wealthiest country in the world—that is, one deeply committed to the liberal tradition and willing to defend it against attacks from the Left as well as the Right.
In The Controversialist, Peretz offers us a frank and important account of his intellectual and political journey—his youth in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish neighborhoods of the Bronx, his college years at Brandeis University, five decades of engagement at Harvard University’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, nearly four decades at the helm of the New Republic, and finally, the years since he sold the magazine. His agreements and disagreements with a host of prominent intellectuals, journalists, and political figures will interest readers familiar with the last 60 years of American political history. He was, he writes, in the middle of the political fray, most importantly as a publisher.
I do not claim to objectivity regarding The Controversialist. Between 1995 and 2010, I wrote 14 reviews for the “back of the book,” the lively review section edited by Leon Wieseltier, and eight political essays when the magazine went online and was edited by Richard Just. In those years, the magazine (hereafter TNR) was notable in American journalism for being a publication in which one could read both criticisms of the American Right’s attacks on the welfare state and liberal denunciations of communist dictatorships. Under his leadership, TNR generally supported the Democratic Party, but in the essays and reviews by African-American scholars and writers, it introduced nuance into public discussion of race and racism and the causes of poverty. It was a place to follow scholarship on both the Holocaust and the Gulag, and about right-wing dictatorships and the leftist dictators in Central and Latin America.