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Nation, The


NATION, THE, a weekly journal of opinion founded in New York in 1865. America's oldest weekly magazine, The Nation has been distinctive since its inception for its independent and often dissenting voice. Its political commentary, cultural criticism, and, in later years, investigative reporting have often been far more influential than its modest circulation and frequently tenuous finances might suggest. Among its "main objects," The Nation 's prospectus listed: "The discussion of the topics of the day. The maintenance and diffusion of true democratic principles. Sound and impartial criticism of books and works of art." The magazine was originally funded by a group interested in aiding freed slaves, though under its first editor, the Irish-born journalist E. L. Godkin, it soon shifted its political emphasis to civic reform with particular attention to the abuses of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York City.

The Nation under Godkin was notable for its classic laissez-faire liberalism, its commitment to a "higher standard" of literary criticism, and its moral seriousness. Lord Bryce remarked that Godkin's intimates admired him less for his "intellectual gifts" than for the "moral qualities" that directed them. And while those qualities could draw criticismfor example, Charles A. Dana, editor of the raffish and popular daily New York Sun, dismissed Godkin as "priggish and self-complacent"the magazine gained a devoted following among the small but influential readership Godkin cared most to win, which he described as "thoughtful, educated, high-minded mengentlemen in short." Into that category also fell most of his contributors, among them William James, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Charles S. Peirce, Frederick Law Olmsted, William Graham Sumner, and John W. De Forest. De Forest is said to have launched the term "great American novel" in a Nation essay in 1868.

After Godkin was named editor of Henry Villard's New York Evening Post in 1881, The Nation, incorporated into the newspaper as a weekly supplement, underwent a slow leakage of freshness, edge, and influence. At one point, H. L. Mencken called it "perhaps, the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world." In 1918, Oswald Garrison Villard sold the Post and became editor of The Nation, which he transformed so starkly that, he later recalled, many old readers were said to "have perished from shock and heart failure." New readers, however, more than filled whatever void those left, and by 1920, its circulation had jumped more than fivefold to 38,087. A longtime pacifist and reformer, Villard crusaded for civil rights, workers' rights, the impeachment of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and a new trial for the convicted anarchist-murderers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Villard opposed U.S. adventurism in Haiti and Nicaragua, and he supported the Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette in 1924.

In 1932, Villard was succeeded as editor by Freda Kirchwey, who as a young staffer had edited the magazine's 1923 series "New Morals for Old," a bold exploration of marriage, sexuality, and the role of women. Kirchwey, who bought the magazine in 1937, maintained its liberal and crusading spirit. The Nation backed the Loyalists in Spain and the rescue of European refugees, and it supported the New Deal even while pressing the president to move further left. But Kirchwey's growing belief that fascism was a greater evil than war led to a bitter break with Villard, who accused her of "prostituting" the magazine. After the war, Kirchwey claimed credit for influencing President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel, but the magazine's fierce resistance to McCarthyism and its support for détente with the Soviet Union made it a frequent target of criticism, including from some of its own contributors and staffers and other members of the splintered left.

Among the goals of Carey McWilliams, the editor from 1955 to 1975, was what he called the revival of the muckraking tradition at a time when it had publicly been pronounced dead. The magazine investigated such topics as the Bay of Pigs disaster, welfare, the Central Intelligence Agency, blacklisting, the death penalty, business corruption, the Robert Oppenheimer and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg cases, and the beginnings of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It was the first to publish Ralph Nader's articles on car safety. It also returned to its earliest roots with a vigorous campaign on behalf of the civil rights of African Americans.

Ownership of the magazine took many forms over the years, including individuals, the nonprofit group of Nation Associates, and groups of large and small investors in limited partnership with the publisher. The audited circulation in 2000 was 97,213. The Nation Institute, a nonprofit arm founded in 1966, supported investigative reporting projects, First Amendment and civil rights issues, and public education. Victor Navasky became editor in 1978 and was succeeded in that post by Katrina vanden Heuvel in 1995, when Navasky assumed the positions of publisher and editorial director. He has said that the magazine has not yet, to his knowledge, turned a profit. Rumor has it the publication once made money for three years, but no one, he said, can figure out when that was.


Alpern, Sara. Freda Kirchwey, a Woman of the "Nation." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

vanden Heuvel, Katrina, ed. The "Nation" 18651990: Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990.

McWilliams, Carey. The Education of Carey McWilliams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Ogden, Rollo, ed. Life and Letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin. New York: Macmillan, 1907.

Andie Tucher

See also Magazines .

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