January 28, 2012

The Forgotten

The career of journalism is not one conducive to having your name go down in history. Most journalists are forgotten within a week of their last byline. Your best hope of being remembered might be to write for a periodical that happens to outlive you and thus has an interest in dredging up your name now and then.

Much of what we think we know about controversies of the past is filtered via this "survivorship bias." The current editors of The New Republic or The Nation or National Review or The Atlantic explain that the key intellectual breakthrough of the past age came in some article they happened to have published. But a huge amount of influential journalism was published in periodicals that aren't around anymore.  

Having been an enthusiastic reader of opinion journalism going back to the late 1960s, it strikes me that much of our current pictures of what people thought back then is warped by which publications happened to endure. For example, when I began high school debate in 1972, one of the magazines that was most quoted as "evidence" was the liberal intellectual weekly, The Saturday Review of Literature. It was a huge presence in the national discourse, having something like 600,000 subscribers (trust me, that's a lot). And it had been a big magazine for decades. In fact, it was so big that various financial engineers tried to make a lot of money off it, which eventually led to its demise. 

The Saturday Review's editor, Norman Cousins, ranked not far behind William F. Buckley as the most famous opinion magazine editor of the 1970s. Cousins even became a household name far beyond intellectual spheres when he published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine recounting how, when suffering an illness, he attempted to induce a placebo effect in himself by reading funny books and watching his favorite Marx Bros. movies.

When I had cancer in 1997, I more or less followed Cousins' advice. Many people try to heroically combine doing their jobs with undergoing chemotherapy, but with Cousins' theory in mind, I immediately went on disability and just did whatever I liked. I reread all Robert Heinlein's novels, took long walks along the Chicago lakefront, played golf, and carefully polished perhaps my best article Is Love Colorblind? And I slept 12 hours per day. (Nice work if you can get it.)

Did it work? I dunno, but 15 years later, I'm still here.

You can now find all 2,646 issues of The Saturday Review at Unz.org, along with over 100 other magazines. Ron Unz's trove of opinion journalism and the like is a great resource for historians and the historically-minded. You can search the Unz.org archive in Google just by starting a search with

site:Unz.org

When reading up on Norman Cousins, I saw this quote in his NYT obituary:
"That made it apparent to me that there was a new breed in America," he said, "people who were business executives, or in science, say, who were interested in ideas but not interested in intellectual cliques or literary gossip. I recognized that this was one of the most exciting intellectual developments of our times -- but its manifestations hadn't been acted upon by those in the world of communications."

I suspect Cousins' had one particular business executive / scientist foremost in mind when he said that: Everette Lee DeGolyer, who owned The Saturday Review and bequeathed it to Cousins when he died in 1956. 

This picture of a young DeGolyer, tired and muddy but rightly happy, is my favorite in Daniel Yergin's monumental history of the oil industry, The Prize. The caption reads, "The geologist Everett Lee DeGolyer, sitting on a porch near Tampico after his discovery in 1910 of what became Mexico's Golden Lane. By 1921, Mexico was the world's largest oil producer." It's a great picture of the Enterprising Young American.

DeGolyer would be high on the list of Most Valuable Americans whom nobody these days has ever heard of. The oil industry is a massive contributor to the wealth of America, and DeGolyer contributed as much to the success of the American oil industry in the first half of the 20th Century as anybody. Yergin writes:
No man more singularly embodied the American oil industry and its far-flung development in the first half of the twentieth century than DeGolyer. Geologist -- the most eminent of his day -- entrepreneur, innovator, scholar, he had touched almost every aspect of significance in the industry. Born in a sod hut in Kansas ... while still an undergraduate, he took time time off to go to Mexico, where in 1910, he discovered the fabulous Portrero del Llano 4 well. ... It was the biggest oil well ever discovered ...  
That was only the beginning. DeGolyer was more responsible than any other single person for the introduction of geophysics into oil exploration. He pioneered the development of the seismograph, one of the most important innovations in the history of the oil industry ... 

He put together one big oil firm, Amerada, then started the premiere oil engineering consulting firm, DeGolyer and McNaughton. He made $2 million per year during the Depression. In 1943, FDR sent him on a top secret mission to Saudi Arabia to figure out how important that hunk of desert was. One of his staffers reported back, "The oil in this region is the greatest single prize in all history."
Eventually he grew bored with making money and gave a lot of it away. ... He was a founder of what became Texas Instruments. He was a considerable historian of chili. He built an extraordinary collection of books. He bailed out the Saturday Review of Literature when it was about to go bust, and became its chairman, though he never did care much for its politics.

32 comments:

dearieme said...

People overlook how much of America's wealth came from oil, ore and topsoil.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Steve.
Back n Vitorian times and in the early 20th century, good journalists were respected and were celebrities in their own right.
Even in modern Britain certain broadsheet journalists are minor celebrities with the intellectual crowd that still read such things.
In those days it was all about the quality of the prose, the journalist's depth of knowledge and the qaulity of the stories and insights, in my own mind I've always compared good journalism to having a damned good chat with a highly knowledgable and well travelled uncle, friend or acquaintance.
Alas, that's not the modern way, and hence the decline of good journalism.

Anonymous said...

He bailed out the Saturday Review of Literature when it was about to go bust, and became its chairman, though he never did care much for its politics.


Holy. Cow.

Talk about throwing away your entire life's work in one fell swoop.

Why oh why oh why did our ancestors not take seriously the threat posed by the Anarchists* and the Frankfurt School* and their ilk?

Sometimes I think that Americans were just too dadgum nice for their own good.










*Our host, as is his wont, declined to mention that Norman MacCousins was, in fact, a Scots-Irish-man.

Henry Canaday said...

Back in the mid-70s, after the initial energy crisis hit, the Federal government, in the form first of the Federal Energy Administration and later the Department of Energy, became intensely eager to improve its analytical tools for assessing U.S. oil prospects and modeling overall energy markets. A set of new energy-consulting firms sprung up to fill this need and several established consulting firms offered to pitch in to help, But DeGolyer and McNaughton, which was famed as the best of the oil consultants, did not solicit Federal work. They said they could not serve both the government and industry simultaneously, without risk of conflict of interest. And they did not need the business.

Some one said...

America had initial stage of acumulative wealth that Britain had when they stole India's wealth to finance the Industrial Revolution.

Anonymous said...

"Having been an enthusiastic reader of opinion journalism going back to the late 1960s, it strikes me that much of our current pictures of what people thought back then is warped by which publications happened to endure."

It helps if the pieces are compiled in book form and/or assigned to students in writing, history, or journalism classes in high school or college.

Anonymous said...

It also helps if the writer had something more than grasp of facts and opinions. Time change, and so what was relevant at one time isn't relevant later. But if the person wrote with wit, humor, and personality--as Mencken is said to have done(I dunno, as I've never read him)--, then people will keep reading his pieces for sheer pleasure. I feel this way about Mike Royko. He makes old ethnic urban America come to life with lots of laughs.

josh said...

It says that 94.5% of all the people in America named DeGolyer are white. A tiny few are Asian,but most of the remainder are "white hispanic" at 4%. Hmm,seems not all of DeGolyers time in Mexico was spent drilling for OIL...

SFG said...

Yawn...this is another good argument for European social democracy. It's disgusting people with metastatic cancer still have to work. If you're going to die, you should be able to spend your last days with your family ...or on bacon cheeseburgers and Heinlein novels, as your preference may be.

Internatiinal Jew said...

As a fellow one-time high school debater I enjoyed you spell "evidence" with quotes around it.

Anonymous said...

unz.org eh? Sounds interesting... let's go take a look. Hmmm, lots of periodicals, odd layout -- very minimalist, no About button or anything else explaining the site, there's The American Conservative of course, and ... WTF? ... 20 Years of American Renaissance??? And not even buried deep in the stacks somewhere, but right up there on the initial page, included in a list of only 122 periodicals, many of which (e.g., Weird Tales) are not remotely intellectual or issue oriented.

<boggle!>

What exactly is up with Ron Unz anyway? I can't find out much about him. His Wikipedia page is minimal. He seems to be supporting Razib Khan, who is "an Unz Foundation Junior Fellow." But I can't find out a damn thing about the Unz Foundation, or discover anyone else associated with it! Ron seems like a very secretive guy -- I wonder what other pies he has a finger in?

Anonymous said...

So true about opinion journalism being a non-road to immortality. Walter Lippman, Joseph Alsop...they were _giants_ in their day, but who in the world reads them today? Who re-read them twenty years ago? It's like they never existed.

SFG said...

How about the American Mercury? I think Mencken would be much appreciated by modern-day HBDers...

No name said...

I remember reading Saturday Review as a little kid and I can't remember a thing about it. It was one of those bland, middle brow magazines that died out.

I love Unz's site, I've been "Collier's" - which is big in the 30s/40s. Another bland, middle-brow magazine - which published some great Literature.

Ray Sawhill said...

Great posting. I remember The Saturday Review well, but knew nothing about its owner. Now that was dumb of me.

Mr. Anon said...

Gee, it's nostalgic to remember a time when american publishing was still influenced by ......... Americans.

David said...

People overlook the sheer bulk of the intellectual poison fostered by naive goyim who happened to have cash. If this type has soured on disinterested intellectualism, well, no wonder.

I don't think Bill Gates will prop up a single journal. He will instead bequeath all his cash to his struggling people. Just joking. We all know Africa is where his money will go.

The most successful businesspeople apparently have an indefeasible deficit in comprehending cultural, intellectual, or artistic value, while many artists and intellectuals are likewise rotten at making or keeping money. It's a well-worn observation because it is true. New paradigms of artists as producers or intellectuals as brain-workers, or businesspeople as creative artists, have not mitigated the impasse one iota; they merely have released a large amount of verbal flatulence.

The best model - which has been corrupted - is that which DeGolyer aparently was following. In this model, rich people are not expected to understand (or care) exactly where their cultural expenditures are going; they are expected, as citizens, to tithe to their people, and a certage percentage of that should go to people's cultural activities. On the people's side of the bargain ("people" includes intellectuals for the purposes of this analysis), they are expected not to engage in ethnic warfare (covert or otherwise) against the rich person's people. In other words, the ideal of common interest must be rehabilitated.

helene edwards said...

I wonder if Unz posted the old American Spectators. Around 1987 they had a great piece called "Frosty's Revenge," about a teenaged S.F. prostitute who killed her pimp. That was a great magazine before they fell for the Clinton drug-running scam.

Gene Berman said...

Ray Sawhill

What Ray said.

morleysafer said...

Interesting post. I knew about Norman Cousins only from Unitarians quoting him during the thermonuclear chin-stroking '80s (there was that Australian woman too, till suddenly one day all attention shifted to the ozone hole)

Anonymous said...

Steve did you do chemo plus your Cousins' therapy?

Kent Gatewood

Anonymous said...

Historian of chili? How extraordinary.
Gilbert Pinfold.

alonzo portfolio said...

Wow, with all these old magazines now available to me, I fear I'm going to be reading less of Steve.

Steve Sailer said...

"Steve did you do chemo plus your Cousins' therapy?"

Oh, yeah, I did everything: the standard chemo plus I got into a trial of the new monoclonal antibody Rituxan, which is now the highest revenue cancer drug in the world, plus I had myself hypnotized and given pep talks of my own devising. I'm not some Steve Jobs type who thinks alternative medicine means instead of real medicine.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

You should read what Gary Taubes writes about cancer in "Good Calories, Bad Calories". That is, diet is the main factor in cancer.

agnostic said...

There's lots of Young Enterprising Americans from the Jazz Age that no one remembers, even if their name lives on in the company's name.

Forrest Mars, Sr. is another good biography to read. *Emperors of Chocolate* compares the way that the Mars vs. the Hershey companies were run during the 20th C, and much of the focus on the Mars side looks at Forrest Sr.'s eccentricities and untiring ambition.

agnostic said...

Speaking of Jazz Age heroes, here's a good test for Greg Cochran's idea that we've moved from heroes of accomplishment to heroes of suffering:

Do young people today remember Charles Lindbergh more for his courage, achieving the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic at age 25? Or for his infant son later being kidnapped and murdered?

TGGP said...

Or do people remember Lindbergh for his marginalized foreign policy views?

Jack Grant said...

Cousins even became a household name far beyond intellectual spheres when he published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine recounting how, when suffering an illness, he attempted to induce a placebo effect in himself by reading funny books and watching his favorite Marx Bros. movies.

I couldn't get free access to the 1976 article so don't know exactly what was said there, but I do know what he said in a 1979 edition of a book by the same name - Anatomy of an Illness.

Your synopsis did not include all salient aspects of his self-treatment, which included a little help from some friends - an MD and an IV drip delivering something like 25 grams per day of Vitamin C (as NaAsc) in aqueous solution.

He was impressed enough by the perceived efficacy of the Vit C that he conspired with a friend (whose hospitalized daughter wasn't doing well) to smuggle in Vit C hidden in ice cream.

Anonymous said...

SFG, the first thing I noticed about Unz's collection was the absence of American Mercury. Our loss.

I recommend Mencken to everyone, especially his lucubrations on language.

Anonymous said...

SFG, the first thing I noticed about Unz's collection was the absence of American Mercury. Our loss.

www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury

rjp said...

Thanks for the link to unz.org