An Education

Deborah Friedell · The New Republic

Two years ago, the New Republic was bought by Chris Hughes, a millionaire many times over: he had been Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, and was one of the founders of Facebook. Last week, the man Hughes appointed as TNR’s chief executive officer — its first in 100 years – announced that it would no longer be a magazine but a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’; most of the editorial staff have resigned, including Leon Wieseltier, who for 31 years was the literary editor.

My first job out of university was as Leon’s assistant. I think he liked it when, at my interview, I said that I didn’t care about money (not strictly true) so long as I could have free books. Like all Leon's assistants, I never earned more than the minimum wage, but it wasn’t unusual for me to find a pair of ballet tickets on my desk, or all the novels of Jean Rhys, or a not-yet-released album by Leonard Cohen, or Lionel Trilling’s essays. They were rewards, but they were also intended to improve my taste.

Sometimes Leon would order me out of the office, to see the cherry trees or go to the National Gallery. But I liked staying in the office: who knew what might happen, or who might come in? Talking to Leon was pleasure enough. 'You see out there it's 2004, but in this office it's 1954,' he would say, which suited me fine. Later I found out that the line was taken from The Sopranos (‘It’s not Shakespeare,' he once said of the show, 'but it is Balzac’). I also got to write for the magazine, which meant that I would give Leon my best effort and he would make it coherent: another kind of reward.

After two years, Leon chucked his assistants out, usually to make us go to England for graduate school, as he had. A previous assistant had kept his photograph above her bed. I didn’t do that, but on my last day he said: ‘Think of me on Addison’s Walk’ – and so I did, once I found out what and where it was. He also gave me a first edition of short stories by Henry James. One of them is about a butler in the employ of a great man, whose house is full of books and whose visitors are always splendid. At one point the master tells an anecdote about Byron; at another he reads out the best passages from Saint-Simon. ‘Quite an education, sir, isn’t it, sir?’ When the great man dies, the butler discovers he is unemployable, and comes to a bad end. I wondered if I was like the butler, 'spoiled’ for almost any other office. I think I probably had been.

Addison’s Walk

Addison’s Walk


  • 8 December 2014 at 7:43pm
    keith smith says:
    The New Republic is one of the few publications that could be turned into a 'vertically integrated digital media company' at no loss to anyone. I certainly won't miss it, especially the relentless promotion of every myth and cliche of the Israeli right. And if Leon Wieseltier thought that giving you the new Leonard Cohen album would improve your taste, I can only say you didn't get out soon enough.

    • 11 December 2014 at 7:17pm
      apologues says: @ keith smith
      I think I will comment on your comment, not because there is anything wrong with your having these opinions, but because you illustrate a particular brand of churlishness that has turned Internet threads into demonstrations of the worst of human ill-nature. I happen to agree with you that former editor Marty Peretz was a rabid and wrongheaded defender of everything that Israel did, so that there was nothing for a reader in those days to do except pass over all the articles on that subject and get to Leon Wieseltier's literary criticism. I also grew tired of TNR's weird positioning as the conservative liberal outlet, trying especially hard to verify how liberal it was by attacking other liberals. That said, the magazine's transformation into a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’ will certainly a loss to SOME people; and I would opine further that the transformation of ANY well-written general interest magazine into such an entity can only be a disaster for the cause of literacy. I would also say that, if you didn't like the magazine, you didn't ever have to read it, and it is especially small-minded to go further and cast aspersions on anyone who did. Finally, while I may even agree with you about Leonard Cohen, the point is that Wieseltier gave the author the gift that he thought she would like. In a graceful tribute to a thoughtful individual, this detail stands out, and gladdens the heart of those of us who are eager to read ANYTHING these days that testifies to human generosity and kindness. I have to wonder why you would bother to respond to a piece that really isn't at all about The New Republic or its advocacy of Israel, or even about Leonard Cohen, but is a reminiscence about a human being who fostered another human being in a particularly helpful and sensitive way. You apparently just wanted to dump some cold and brackish water on the proceedings. I hope you feel better now. But as a piece of heartfelt advice: get a life.

    • 12 December 2014 at 12:20pm
      streetsj says: @ apologues
      I can't say I know anything about the TNR and have never read it but I found your memories absolutely charming.

    • 12 December 2014 at 5:54pm
      Mona Williams says: @ apologues
      when you mentioned that the author's noting of a particular gift from Leon Wieseltier

      "...gladdens the heart of those of us who are eager to read ANYTHING these days that testifies to human generosity and kindness,"

      you reminded me of the first chapter of Paul Fussell's book about Kingsley Amis, "The Anti-egoist," which I read just this morning. I recommend it to you.

      Here's to fostering, and kindness.

  • 9 December 2014 at 8:27am
    Alfalfa says:
    Marty Peretz kept the New Republic in the news for all the wrong reasons, but at the time Hughes took over, it featured some of the best literary criticism to be found in a general-interest magazine. The loss of Leon Wieseltier, Ruth Franklin, Adam Kirsch, Isaac Chotiner and many other excellent writers (see can only be other magazines' gain.

  • 13 December 2014 at 6:59pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Ms. Friedell's piece is really a fond reminiscence of a time, a place, and a man, and a nice tribute to Wieseltier. I usually like his writing, but occasionally run across a piece whose tendentious political undertone - or self-righteousness- irritates me, but so what? He wouldn't be much of a writer or thinker if his work never offended or irritated readers. So, Mr. Street's remarks are way-off base, and they actually have nothing to do with her recollections. I myself liked the pre-Peretz magazine, heavy with text and even showing off I.F. Stone on occasion, and think that it was better than later phases in its long life. Still, it's always been worth reading, regardless of some editorial predictability (that's what having a point of view does). If the jackasses who are taken with techno-babble (e.g. "v.i.d.m.c.", which is both both fatuous and vacuous) think this promise/trend is promising, then that's just another sign of a failure of their general education. I'm hanging on to my subscription until I see how the new staff writes and reasons, and, if this is found wanting, I just won't sign up again. We have to wait and see if Hughes (with those laughable Facebook "credentials") and his new ramrod are just posturing or if they will prove to be as destructive as many imagine they will be.

  • 15 December 2014 at 9:05pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    My correction - With my aging eye I criticized Mr. Street's remarks, but I was wrong to do so. It's K. Smith who made the irrelevant remarks.

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