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Chamberlain, John Rensselaer

Chamberlain, John Rensselaer

(b. 28 October 1903 in New Haven, Connecticut; d. 9 April 1995 in New Haven, Connecticut), author, critic, and editor whose gradual conversion from radicalism to conservatism represented the political odyssey of many intellectuals in the decades following the Great Depression.

Chamberlain was the son of Robert Rensselaer Chamberlain, a furniture retailer, and Emily Davis. From 1916 to 1920 he attended Loomis Institute at Windsor, Connecticut, graduating at age sixteen. After spending a year as an itinerant laborer in California, he enrolled at Yale University, where he served on the board of the Yale Literary Magazine, wrote a column for the Yale Daily News, and chaired the Yale Record.

After receiving his B.Phil. degree in 1925, Chamberlain briefly worked for a New York advertising agency. He was a city reporter for the New York Times from 1926 to 1928, at which point he was made assistant editor of the Times’ s book review section, a post he held until 1933.

In 1932 Chamberlain published Farewell to Reform: A History of the Rise, Life, and Decay of the Progressive Mind in America, a well-received critical survey of the American reform tradition in literature that contained deftly drawn portraits of personalities and movements. He found populists burdened by their focus on free silver, muckrakers impotent to hinder corporate power, progressives accomplishing “minimal results,” and Woodrow Wilson betraying his own principles by leading his nation into war. In a second edition (1933), he predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be driven to the right, which would substantiate Chamberlain’s claim that New Deal reforms were bound to fail.

In April 1933 Chamberlain became associate editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, but that September he returned to the New York Times as book columnist, in which capacity he wrote five reviews a week in a “Books of the Times” column. From 1936 to 1938 he was book editor of the monthly Scribner’s Magazine, and in 1936 he began summarizing books as well for Current History. From 1939 to 1947 he was book editor of the monthly Harper’s Magazine. During this time he contributed frequently to such publications as the New York Herald Tribune, New Republic, Common Sense, Yale Review, and Commonweal.

In 1936 Chamberlain became an editor at Fortune, a business monthly, where he remained until 1941. By reporting firsthand on industrial developments throughout the nation, Chamberlain became more sympathetic to business. Fortune publisher Henry Luce let Chamberlain be something of a maverick, permitting him to endorse a third term for Franklin Roosevelt and write a dissent on the famous “American Century” editorial published in Luce’s weekly Life in February 1941.

In 1933 Chamberlain had defined himself as a Marxist “in the Bernard Shaw sense,” but by the mid-1930s he was intensely critical of communism at home and abroad. In 1940 he published The American Stakes, as persuasive a plea for gradualism as Farewell to Reform had been an attack upon it. Drawing upon his magazine articles, he defended much of the New Deal, welcomed a mixed economy, and advocated consumer cooperatives. Strongly anti-interventionist, he claimed that the United States should limit military involvement to the Western Hemisphere. In 1940 and 1941 he served on the editorial board of Uncensored, a mimeographed weekly sponsored by the Writers Anti-War Bureau.

From 1942 to 1944 Chamberlain was again the Times book columnist, splitting daily assignments with Orville Prescott. From 1945 to 1950 he was a senior editor at Life. At first he worked out of Washington, D.C., writing articles on such matters as the findings of the Pearl Harbor congressional investigation, the failures of Britain’s new Labour government, and the need to contain the Soviets in Asia as well as Europe. From 1948 to 1950 he contributed biweekly editorials, sharing the task with John Osborne. He was also on the editorial staff of Plain Talk, a militant anti-Soviet monthly stressing the dangers of domestic communism and lasting from 1946 to 1950.

From 1950 to 1952 Chamberlain reviewed politics, economics, and the arts for a journal that was in some sense Plain Talk’s officially designated successor, the biweekly Freeman, which he first coedited with Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne La Follette, themselves former radicals of the 1930s. In his articles and book reviews, Chamberlain defended the brand of anticommunism espoused by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He also supported conservative senator Robert Taft’s bid for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, and he accused the Truman administration of appeasing communism, particularly in China. Chamberlain resigned from the board of the Freeman in 1953, along with La Follette and editor Forrest Davis, when such wealthy backers as the du Ponts and the oil magnate J. Howard Pew sought a more pro-Eisenhower stance. When, in January 1956, the Foundation for Economic Education converted the Freeman into a monthly, however, Chamberlain became a frequent contributor. In 1955, when the National Review was founded, Chamberlain appeared on its masthead as an editorial writer and fortnightly book reviewer. From 1953 to 1955 he was associate editor of Barron’s National Financial Weekly, after which he became staff writer for the Wall Street Journal until 1960. For twenty-five years, ending in 1985, he wrote a daily column, “These Days,” for Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, assuming the slot once designated to George Sokolsky. There was hardly a conservative journal to which Chamberlain did not contribute, be it the tabloid weekly Human Events or the more intellectual monthly Modern Age.

Chamberlain continued to write books as well. His book MacArthur, 1941–1951 (1954) is a spirited defense of every major move undertaken by the flamboyant general. Although Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief, General Charles Willoughby, was listed as first author, Chamberlain wrote the working text. In 1959 he published The Roots of Capitalism, a popularized economic history beginning with a discussion of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and stressing the virtues of “supply-side” economics. In 1963 his book The Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States, a condensation of a series originally running in Fortune, challenged the “robber baron” thesis. In his lively narrative, he defended such maligned figures as J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Despite his lifetime of heavy writing commitments, Chamberlain had time to teach budding apprentices. In 1934 and 1935 he was lecturer at the Columbia University School of Journalism; he was later associate professor at Columbia from 1941 to 1944. From 1972 to 1977 he was dean of the Troy (Alabama) State University School of Journalism, conducting a seminar on investigative journalism every three weeks.

On 22 April 1926 he married Margaret Sterling, who died in 1955. They had two daughters. On 29 June 1956 he married Ernestine Stodelle. They had one son. Chamberlain died of natural causes at age ninety-one.

Throughout his career, Chamberlain was noted for his lucid style, breadth of knowledge, and conciliatory personality. Though his political odyssey was marked by a radical shift from the left to the right, he always saw himself as the foe of entrenched power, be it business or the state.

The papers of John Chamberlain are located in the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. Chamberlain’s autobiography is titled A Life with the Printed Word (1982). For scholarly treatment of Chamberlain, see Louis Filler, “John Chamberlain and American Liberalism,” Colorado Quarterly 6 (autumn 1957): 200-211, and Frank Annunziata, “The Political Thought of John Chamberlain,” South Atlantic Quarterly 74 (winter 1975): 53-73. For a collection of his Freeman reviews, see his book The Turnabout Years: America’s Cultural Life, 1900–1950 (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times (13 Apr. 1995) and National Review (1 May 1995).

Justus D. Doenecke

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