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Friday, January 5, 2007
Happy 75th, American Scholar
I have in my hands the 75th anniversary edition of The American Scholar, the quarterly journal of literature, science, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society. (I am not a member, but I'll bet at least one or two of my fellow Brainiacs is; would you care to out yourselves?)
I discovered The American Scholar in the late 1990s, during the editorship (1998-2004) of Anne Fadiman, who -- as I wrote in an Ideas item last winter -- had turned the formerly stodgy journal into a prize-winning redoubt of belletristic personal essays. I always found something in each issue to admire, but it wasn't really my cup of tea.
Under editor Robert Wilson, who took the job in 2005 promising to return The American Scholar to its roots as a forum for public intellectuals, it's been a much better read, in my opinion. I particularly enjoy the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously, as is evidenced in the 75th anniversary issue by historian Ted Widmer's interesting and funny account of the quarterly's history, which mixes praise for the journal's impressive roster of contributors with wry asides about, for example, how it sometimes fell prey to "some pedantry, some snobbery, and some Babbittry."
Elsewhere in the issue, literary critic Rich Nicholls excerpts a few dozen essays by the likes of Archibald MacLeish, Mark Van Doren, Daniel J. Boorstin, Barbara Tuchman, Marshall McLuhan, Edward O. Wilson, Rita Dove, and Hannah Arendt. Who are the intellectual giants and provocateurs of today? One would like to see their names appear on the cover of The American Scholar; alas, I have not seen them appear there so far during Wilson's tenure. Still, the journal is much improved, and that is no small accomplishment.
UPDATE: I should have used the word "unsung" in front of the phrase "intellectual giants and provocateurs." Also, Robert Wilson cordially argues that TAS does publish the kinds of thinkers and writers I was talking about; see his email here.