Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. He graduated from Grinnell in 1977. Tanenhaus has returned to the College to teach a short course this semester called The Writer and the World. He spoke Thursday as part of the Writers@Grinnell program.
What are you speaking about on Thursday?
In “New Politics and Old Ideas”, what I’m talking about is how a lot of issues that are up for grabs in this election have been at the center of political argument and debate for the better part of the century.
What I hope to do is to explain, or at least point out, how the conflicts that we’re seeing now, and which seem very much of the moment, are repeated time and time again, election after election; because they aren’t necessarily about the things we say they’re about.
They’re cultural and identity conflicts: even when we say they’re about the economy, they’re really not. Who really constitutes the elite? The marginalized outsider? These are constant themes in our politics. In “better” political times, the two political sides listen to one another better and they learn from one another.
A generation from now we’ll look back at, say, the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street and see that they’re actually reverse sides to the same complaint about the culture. The groups that seem antagonistic will maybe seem more parallel.
Given the rather quiet and small Conservative presence on campus, are you keeping them in mind with this speech?
Yes, yes. The last little book I wrote, The Death of Conservatism, was really a short history of Conservatism, written by someone who has been studying it for a long time. It’s one of the topics that really interests me.
The rise of conservatism alongside the Civil Rights movement and feminism is one of the three great, important developments in modern history—and it’s been overlooked. A lot of scholars, very educated people, don’t understand the basis of the arguments and what the valid arguments are. The more you know about it, the better.
I think people nowadays are so partisan; they often can’t look past their own side. So I hope that Republican and Conservatives of one kind or another will be there and will ask as many questions as possible. I hope we can really have a discussion.
Did this interest develop in Grinnell?
You know it did, in a funny way. In retrospect, I would argue with people a lot [during college]. I think what I thought I was resisting or combating was a very ingrained set of assumptions that people didn’t challenge.
I was a very intense English major-type. Well my hero then was—and still is—the great critic Lionel Trilling. He wrote as a liberal who was skeptical of liberal groupthink—and that’s where I thought I was. I wanted to talk about the things we didn’t agree on. That’s the sort of thing that really stimulated me: turning arguments around and seeing oppositions and contradictions that other people didn’t.
I had a fantastic professor who was interested in that sort of thing too. Literary study was different then, it was a lot of close reading, which I swear by—but I like to think of the cultural context. That made me look at the great literature of the past and also contemporary literature in a different way, and I got that from Grinnell. Also, the emphasis on the humanities as well: that things interrelate, that all these different disciplines influence one another.
How did studying fiction and fiction-writing at Grinnell influence your nonfiction writing style?
First, being a Grinnell College English major schooled me in close reading of complicated texts. Once I moved to historical non-fiction, I saw that this background helped me interpret the documents—letters, FBI interrogations, courtroom transcripts—I use in reconstructing key events in my biographies.
Second, the many novels and also poems I read and analyzed strengthened my feel for character, scene, dramatic development, and the use of precise but also resonant language—all essential to writing good nonfiction.
For instance, right now I’m working on a chapter on Joe McCarthy. There was this weird irony that after McCarthy was finished “red-hunting” he gave a series of very impressive foreign policy speeches. When I read those speeches and I’m picking out the lines I want to quote, well, where do you think that comes from? Or, when I did a biography of Whittaker Chambers, who was the accuser in really the greatest American political drama, I spent a lot of that time going over congressional interrogations and courtroom cases, figuring out what’s not being said—why did this testimony resonate? Well, because here’s what’s implicit in it. It’s that really, really close reading.
One particular memory from Grinnell?
One even I’m sure you’ve heard of—Bruce Springsteen’s performance. Well, that was a highlight. It was at almost exactly the moment that his great album “Born to Run” was released and that’s the one that put him on the map. He was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, back in the days when people read those.
He had been booked here the year before because we had some really smart, cool music guys. And then he just exploded as the biggest thing in America. But his first two albums had a very small, devoted cult following. I had never heard of him. But he had booked this tour through the Midwest and he kept all his appointments. So he came with his band in Darby Gym, and I remember him coming out on stage and sitting down at the piano…and the way his voice filled that space…so that’s a really vivid memory that everyone from my era here will remember.
Via email, Tanenhaus expanded on this question:
End of my freshman year, 1974. I stayed for commencement because my girlfriend at the time sang in the choir (and they performed). In those days the student union was the Forum. I remember sitting there amid the seniors and realizing they weren’t just older, but members of a different generation—the 60s, when young people seemed to rule the planet. Some had fought in Vietnam, been to Woodstock, worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign (the last gasp of the New Left, so-called). They looked older and also more experienced, all veterans of a sort, of 60s’ rebellion, cultural excitements.
I belonged to a new “cohort”—post-60s, the beginnings of the period we’re still in: national economic malaise (labeled “stagflation”), the “oil crisis” (our first winter break lasted 7 weeks, I think, so the college could save on fuel/heating costs). We were more “serious,” filled with anxiety about jobs, careers, “the real world.” That image is still fixed in my head—of these exotics from what seemed another era that was passing into history before my eyes.