Perhaps my happiest experience as a freelance writer was publishing in Lingua Franca, the late, much-lamented magazine that covered intellectual life with genuine journalistic moxie. Most journalists are baffled by ideas and alienated from the academy. The usual approach to writing about contemporary scholarship tends to be a mixture of sensationalism and scorn (for an example, see almost any issue of The New Criterion that deals with the MLA). The Lingua Franca crew weren’t like that: they didn’t shirk from the tough task of taking theory and making it into narrative without doing an injustice to intellectual integrity of the initial ideas.
Scott McLemee was the perfect Lingua Franca writer: he’s as erudite as anyone I know and has a real gift writing about complicated ideas with clarity, so that the reader ends up joining a conversation that at first brush might have been intimidating. He doesn’t talk down to readers or dazzle them with any specialized jargon but rather writes about ideas with the same faith in lucid exposition that Orwell brought to political writing or A.J. Liebling brought to sports writing, or Robert Hughes brings to art writing. Scott’s been lucky to find a great perch for his talent in the magazine Inside Higher Ed, where he as a weekly column.
I got to see Scott in action recently when he interviewed me about my “Orphan Annie” research. To do the interview, Scott read my writing with great care. His questions were superb: they really got to the core of what I’ve been working on. Intellectual life can be lonely and an academic is always lucky even a handful of readers who can understand what he or she is up to. For a surprisingly large number of academic writers, Scott is one of their select compnay of ideal readers.
The full interview can be read here. An excerpt below:
Q: You argue that from its start in the mid-1920s the strip manifests a strain of conservative populism. The honest, hard-working, “just folks” Annie makes her indomitable way in a world full of elitists, social-climbing poseurs, and pointy-headed do-gooders. How did the strip respond to the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the New Deal that came in its wake?
A: While big business Republicans like Herbert Hoover were politically vanquished by the Great Depression, Harold Gray actually prospered during the 1930s, with Annie becoming the star of the most popular radio show of the decade. How can we explain this, given that Gray was as much an advocate of two-fisted capitalism as Hoover?
Whatever the merits of Hoover’s policies, the President was tone deaf in responding to the Depression because he adopted a harsh rhetoric that denied the reality of poverty. “Nobody is actually starving,” Hoover said as millions had to line up in soup kitchens. “The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they ever have been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”
Orphan Annie and “Daddy” Warbucks never voiced such complacently unfeeling indifference to poverty. Annie was poor even in the prosperous 1920s, often living as a hobo and begging for food when separated from her capitalist guardian Warbucks….
In 1931, Daddy Warbucks loses his fortune to unscrupulous Wall Street speculators, is blinded, and lives for a time as a street beggar. But after hitting bottom he regains his fighting spirit and outwits the Wall Street sharks who brought him and America low. By 1932, the villains in the strip are increasingly identified with the political left: snide bohemian intellectuals who mock traditional values, upper-crust class traitors who give money to communists, officious bureaucrats who hamper big business, corrupt labour union leaders who sabotage industry, demagogic politicians who stir up class envy in order to win elections, and busybody social workers who won’t let a poor orphan girl work for a living because of their silly child labor laws. Gray started to identify liberalism with elitism, a potent bit of political framing which continues to shape political discourse in American today.