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Mark Dowie on I.F. Stone
Posted on May 29, 2009
By Mark Dowie
Every writer, of whatever genre, recalls one or two momentous encounters with a professional hero or mentor that either shaped their career, or gave them courage to continue. My most memorable such experience occurred in 1986 in Amsterdam, where a small group of leftish European and North American journalists gathered for dinner after a conference. As the evening unwound, I.F. Stone, known to almost everyone as “Izzy,” whose eyesight was failing, asked if I would walk him back to his hotel. How could I decline that request?
Through the narrow streets and over the canals of Amsterdam we walked in silence, Izzy no doubt pondering Socrates, whose biography he was completing; I, more nervous than a kid on his first date, trying to think of a conversation starter.
American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone
By D. D. Guttenplan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages
The week before I had left for Europe, a right-wing database called Western Goals had made a file on me available to its corporate clients. A detective friend, able to hack into just about any data anywhere, found and gave me the file. Among other things, it described me as a “radical.” I was upset about that, fearing that such a characterization might limit, even ruin, my budding career.
“That’s a badge of honor,” Izzy growled. “You should wear it with pride.” What followed was a short dissertation on Edmund Burke, a conservative philosopher who, among other memorable things, said that “for every thousand people examining the branches of the tree of evil, you’ll find one examining the roots.”
“That’s radical,” said Izzy. “The Latin for root is radix … same derivative as radical. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We examine the roots of things … so we’re radicals. Let them call you what you are, and get on with your work.”
I have since that moment been comfortable calling myself a radical. So imagine my delight, as a fading investigative reporter, upon being asked to review a book about I.F. Stone, who, despite a controversial life and career, was clearly one of the most influential investigative reporters of our time … a book entitled “American Radical.” I will do my best to be objective, although I can already hear Izzy advising me to eschew the charade of objectivity, a worthy idea that in a world of war, injustice and mendacious government, is simply impossible to attain.
D.D. Guttenplan’s vivid and introspective biography contains far more delightful vignettes and unexpected intersections with true left luminaries and other global celebrities of the era. “American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” recounts, in amusing detail, the long and productive life of a shy but clearly brilliant Jewish boy from rural New Jersey who began his writing career as a cub reporter, worked harder than most of his peers, penned heated polemics under various pseudonyms and eventually changed his total identity to I.F. Stone, the name under which, for two critical postwar decades, he wrote and published his legendary I.F. Stone’s Weekly newsletter, which became a teething ring for a whole generation of aspiring left-wing journalists, myself among them.
The book arrives at an appropriate moment in history as the current and apostate left reheat their debate over the worthiness, skills, accomplishments and patriotism of this complex, still mysterious figure in American media. Was Izzy Stone a journalist, or a propagandist? Was he a communist or an anti-Menshevik socialist, a spy, or merely a curious reporter willing to talk to anyone who could offer some insight into Soviet policy and the world of espionage? And who paid for those lunches?
Born in Philadelphia in 1907 (same year as my father) to working-class Russian immigrants, a shy and diminutive Isidor fell head over heels in love with the written word, dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania, declared himself a reporter and began working for small-town, blue-collar New Jersey newspapers, eventually making his way to Philadelphia, then to the New York Post, at the time a champion of New Deal liberalism, then to The Nation, a staunchly pro-Soviet journal of opinion, and finally to the nation’s capital, where, under the mantra “all governments lie,” he set about to expose the chronic mendacity of Washington. Along the way he met and married Esther Roisman and had three children. Esther became his assistant on The Weekly. As he went about the work of expository journalism, he seasoned, and as so many aging journalists do, began to ponder the historical significance of his work and the origins of his deepest beliefs. He ended his career as an amateur classicist, writing “The Trial of Socrates,” a poignant rumination on the fate of a heretic.
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