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Thursday, June 1, 1995

A Reviewer Remembered: John Chamberlain 1903-1995

Chamberlain Let His Printed Words Speak for Themselves

John Chamberlain lived with the printed word most of his life. He was a reader from his earliest years and during his four years at Yale acquired a command of Western Civilization’s literary treasures. John’s fine literary sense developed early, along with a superb style.

John’s first book was a history of the Progressive Era in the United States–roughly the four decades from 1880 to 1920. In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt ran for President on the Progressive Party ticket. John’s book entitled Farewell to Reform (1932) was based on extensive research, a critical use of original sources, and mature literary skill. This book was republished in 1958 and stands today as one of the essential books for understanding those critical years.

For several years during the 1930s John wrote the daily book review for The New York Times. There was rarely a time during this period, he has told us, when he did not have a book in his pocket. Even when he went to Yankee Stadium to watch a ball game he would read between innings! This would kill the ordinary man’s love for books—or for baseball—but day after day John churned out his review and came to be regarded as one of America’s most trusted book reviewers.

No one on the New York literary scene during the New Deal was unaffected by the left-wing slant of most intellectuals. If many of one’s friends—intelligent, articulate, and well-meaning—inclined toward socialism and the Roosevelt regime, well perhaps there was something to it. So John was briefly involved, as he wrote later in his fine autobiography, A Life With the Printed Word (1982).

Then in 1937, John came across a just published book, Our Enemy the State by Albert Jay Nock. That book, John wrote later, “hit me between the eyes.” He had never really been convinced that government had a messianic role to play in society and he began then, as he wrote in his second book, American Stakes (1940), to move sharply in the direction of classical liberalism.

John held positions on the editorial staff of Fortune (1936-1941) and Life (1941-1950), writing dozens of memorable articles.

John’s The Roots of Capitalism (1959) explained simply in his elegant prose how the capitalistic economic system functions and how economic freedom encourages entrepreneurs and increases the well-being of all.

In the early 1960s, John wrote a series of articles for Fortune about various industrial firms and business tycoons. Writing these articles involved extensive independent research and in-depth interviews and led John to realize how much these able, far-seeing men had been maligned and falsely attacked by the ideologues of the left. These articles were published as John’s story of American capitalism, The Enterprising Americans (1963, 1991).

In 1950 a small group of men–FEE Trustees mostly–established The Freeman, reviving the name that had been used by a periodical edited by Nock from 1920 to 1924. The editors were John Chamberlain, Suzanne La Follette, and Henry Hazlitt. John had a book review section in every issue and numerous articles, which were published in a 1991 book, The Turnabout Years: America’s Cultural Life, 1900-1950. After the magazine was taken over by FEE in 1956, John continued his column, “A Reviewer’s Notebook.”

John Chamberlain was a very private person; modest and unassuming. He avoided the limelight, letting his printed words–multi millions of them–speak for themselves. And they continue to speak eloquently for this gentle man, genuine scholar, great stylist, and inspiring friend.

After a brief illness John died on April 9, 1995. He is survived by his wife, Ernestine, six children, 19 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. []


Edmund A. Opitz

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.