All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1992

Memoirs of a Simple Honorable Man

When the rule seems to favor glitz, shallowness, and hubris, John Chamberlain restores faith and feeds the mind.

I don’t know if John Chamberlain ever reviewed Conrad Richter’s A Simple Honorable Man, but he should have. No one who has ever met John can doubt that he embodies these rare qualities. Any era has only a few such souls. They remind us that, above all else, the characteristic of simple common decency makes for a better, and freer, world.

Readers of The Freeman know John’s monthly book review column, “A Reviewer’s Notebook.” It has been a staple since FEE began publishing The Freeman in 1954. He missed the first issue in July of that year but continues his column today—though not on the same rigorous monthly schedule he maintained for nearly 35 years! Thus, it would be an easy mistake to take John for granted, or to think of him only in his important role as “our” Freeman reviewer.

The reviews in this new collection are from an earlier Freeman, the immediate predecessor of FEE’s publication. It was published between October 2, 1950, and June 28, 1954, though John wrote for it during only the first half of its short life. The 54 reviews in this book come from those 61 issues. There is also one new piece on “The Basic John Dos Passos.” They afford us the opportunity to remind ourselves of John Chamberlain’s outstanding reaffirmation of the voluntarist spirit.

John Chamberlain has read a remarkable number of books in 89 years; one suspects he was born reading a book (on October 28, 1903). By one count he has published over 20,000 essays and reviews. Looking back from today, we see that in addition to The Freeman, John had a widely featured three-times-a week syndicated column from 1960 until 1990. Prior to that he had been an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal from 1950 to 1960. He had a long association with Life, first in Washington from 1941 to 1945, then as an editor from 1945 to 1950, and later as their chief editorial writer in the late 1950s. He had earlier been an editor at Fortune, writing editorials, feature articles, and business studies from 1936 until 1941.

These steady jobs were peppered with additional, often overlapping, stints. For instance, he was a senior editor and lead reviewer for National Review at its beginning in 1955. He worked for Barron’s as an associate editor before that. He was a book review editor for Harper’s from 1939 to 1947, a book review editor at Scribner’s from 1936 to 1938, and briefly associate editor of Saturday Review in 1932.

John’s career began when journalism was a more intellectual profession. He started at The New York Times in 1926 and became assistant editor of The New York Times Book Review in 1928. He became the first daily book reviewer for the Times in 1932 and continued for over four years. He later contributed to the daily column intermittently through the mid-1940s. He quickly developed an eager following and a reputation as one of the country’s best younger critics.

As if this weren’t enough for one man, John taught at various times at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and was Dean of the School of Journalism at Troy State University (Alabama) from 1972 to 1977. He has written eight books, many of which are still in print: his very important Farewell to Reform (1932); The Roots of Capitalism (1959), on the theory and practice of the free enterprise system; The Enterprising Americans (1963), a business history of the United States; and A Life with the Printed Word, his charming 1982 autobiography. He has contributed to many books and written introductions to books as various as the first U.S. edition of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, editions of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

An Individualist’s Journey

This backward glance does not do justice to many of John Chamberlain’s accomplishments, but it does put us where we need to begin. John’s odyssey in the world of ideas is an interesting one that starts in the fascinating and misunderstood 1920s. It is most assuredly a particular individualist’s journey. It is also a story of America’s attempt to come to terms with the modern era.

After the terrible rending of institutions and traditional American values caused by the first world war and wartime collectivism, the 1920s strangely reflected a reawakening of nascent individualism within a largely socialist ideology. So it should not strike readers as strange that a number of reviews in this collection from the early 1950s discuss writers from the 1920s, such as Dos Passos and Mencken (“undoubtedly the chief liberator of my own college generation in the early twenties”). It is in the twenties that John begins his own intellectual and peripatetic fondness for the written word and for liberty. First, as a Yale student in the 1920s, he was greatly influenced by the work of William Graham Sumner, having taken courses with A. G. Keller, Sumner’s editor and follower. We find some of John’s comments on Sumner in several reviews in this book.

The cultural and literary criticism of the “lost generation” of the 1920s was the fertile ground of John’s own efforts. Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson were among his favorite critics. Even the title of his later column, “A Reviewer’s Notebook,” is taken from Brooks’ distinguished review column in the 1920s Freeman, edited by Albert Jay Nock. John was to become “the finest critic of his generation,” as his former professor Billy Phelps later described him.

John’s own writing about the 1920s has given a different interpretation of that often maligned period. In a review about F. Scott Fitzgerald reprinted in this volume, he describes the “man of the twenties”: “Americans, in the twenties, believed that man could be a creative agent by his own free decision . . . . He did not have to wait upon permission from a government, an institution, or a set of social conventions. The man of the twenties believed in freedom at the source, working outward from the dedicated individual.” Again, in a review about Edna St. Vincent Millay, he recalls the essentially anti-political feeling of the time that was so refreshing: “politics is the least satisfying, the least rewarding, of human preoccupations. The more we intensify our political activities, the less time we have to spend on personal development, or the arts, or creativity in general.”

He started on the left, though terms like left and right meant little in the earlier period. His first book, Farewell to Reform, was a remarkable critique of American liberalism and progressivism. The reforms of the progressive era and Wilson’s New Freedom were merely rigidifying the whole system. Like John T. Flynn after him, John warned of an impending American fascism. While he was short on positive remedies, there was an almost pro-forma salute to political solutions along socialist lines.

John was one of the first of the American radicals of the 1920s to be disillusioned with interventionist cant. The events around him were just too striking. He rather quickly became an anti-Communist, though he retained certain liberal and leftist shibboleths a bit longer. Henry Luce asked him to do a number of articles on American business for Fortune, and this exposure to thoughtful men and women and an intimate look at the free market system further refined his views. By 1940, John would describe himself as “a free-lance radical who refuses to be bound.” During the previous ten years he had come to recognize the weaknesses of human nature and the even greater dangers and limitations of political “solutions.” He returned to Sumner, to the basic individualism of the 1920s—indeed to the radical Jeffersonian tradition that had also nourished Albert Jay Nock.

What had happened? It would be a mistake to suggest that John’s perspective changed radically. Rather, events showed him that his strongly held values and individualism were relevant in a real world of statism. In a 1952 review of a disappointing book on American conservatism, he revealed that “something has happened to me in the past two decades . . . . [I]n all sincerity I do not think that mere visceral shock accounts for my shift in orientation. I have simply lived to see at least four major brands of statism tried out. I have seen Leninist and Stalinist statism murder its millions in Soviet Russia. I have watched Hitlerian statism kill Jews by the hundreds of thousands in central Europe. I have been a witness (sometimes on the spot) to the destruction of vitality and initiative forced by socialist statism in Britain. And I have lived through eighteen years of New Deal and Fair Deal governments . . . .”

During his journey from the 1920s through the 1950s to today, John described himself as a libertarian or a conservative, but the term “voluntarist” has always been more to his liking. His career cannot be captured in a single review nor in a single collection of essays: he once described it as a never-ending movement “to rescue us from domination by the state-worshiping ‘intellectuals’ and restore decentralized rule by the intelligent man.”

The Freeman

From the mid-1940s, John became part of the small remnant of journalists and writers who marked a turning point in American intellectual history by championing what has been called the Old American Right: a re-dedication to liberty, free markets, limited government, individualism, and moral responsibility. This embattled group had, as he notes in his autobiography, “the feeling that there should be a more fundamental assault on the regnant liberalism if our intellectuals were ever to be reached.”

The Freeman of the 1950s was a major catalyst. With Henry Hazlitt, Isaac Don Levine, and Suzanne La Follette, John founded The Freeman in 1950 from which these reviews are taken. The name was consciously chosen to remind one of The Freeman of the 1920s and thereby to re-emphasize the importance of social power over political power. For some time the masthead described it as “A Fortnightly for Individualists.” John was responsible for the “back of the book” and the lead book review. His contributions appeared in the first issue of October 16,1950, and ended with the January 26, 1953, issue. When an internal controversy over whether to support Taft or Eisenhower threatened to destroy the magazine, he resigned.

The literary and more general reviews in the collection are wonderful, but not primarily because of what they say about a particular book. John’s reviews are neither academic discourses nor point-by-point synopses of a work. Rather, the humanity of his comments and the largeness of context he imparts on the written page give a genuine cultural ethos to works often forgotten. These books are read for what they might illuminate about life and about ideas on liberty. There is, however, no suggestion that there is only one way to read a book. It is all a genuine cultural feast of American reviewing in the voluntarist tradition.

Even when the book reviewed is ephemeral and you have no desire to find a dusty copy in a library, you come away with an enhanced sense of how to read books of your choice. You are reminded of the greatness of Mencken, Sumner, Fitzgerald, Arthur Koestler, C.P. Snow’s novel, The Masters, Frank Chodorov, Herbert Hoover, Leonard E. Read, and many others. And unlike many reviewers, John would review books on any subject. He was not primarily a narrow political reviewer, but rather a broad cultural critic. In this book, there are several moving reviews on John’s friend Whittaker Chambers and a section on “the China Story.”

That John Chamberlain loves books is reason enough to sing his praises. His career hasn’t permitted him to pursue the depth of criticism he often wanted. What he does bring to his reviews is a singular contribution to the renaissance of the American voluntarist spirit. He has been an influential and steady presence in American literary life in general and in the intellectual growth of the American right in particular. When the rule seems to favor glitz, shallowness, and hubris, John Chamberlain restores faith and feeds the mind. We can only echo James Joyce’s comment, “I have enormous belief in the power of a simple honorable soul.”

The Turnabout Years is a small sampling of what one such soul has accomplished, and it affords us the opportunity to say, “Thanks, John.”

Capitalism presupposes an open society in which the ends are determined by individuals, or by voluntary associations of individuals. It is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of an all-encompassing State purpose, or a single official Manifest Destiny—though it is thoroughly compatible with a church whose own purposes are extra-governmental, either “not of this world,” or, if of this world, devoted to leadership, mediation, and charity in the realms which do not belong to Caesar.

Theoretically, of course, it is quite conceivable that capitalism could flourish without a legal framework, either under pure anarchism, or under a beneficent landlordism, or with the blessings of a “let alone” monarch. But, as we shall see, it was James Madison, the scholar among the Founding Fathers, who put his finger unerringly on the need for a device which will put automatic checks on government if any freedoms are to flourish. Purely as a practical matter the institutions of an open society demand the safeguards of a limited government.

—John Chamberlain,

The Roots of Capitalism

  • Mr. Hamilton is Director of Publications and a Program Officer at Liberty Fund. He is a former editor of The Freeman at FEE.