Villard, Oswald Garrison
Oswald Garrison Villard 1872-1949
American journalist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.
As owner of the Nation and its editor for 14 years, Villard built the magazine into a leading liberal publication. He was an outspoken pacifist and continually emphasized the importance of individual freedoms, including freedom of speech and of the press.
Villard was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1872, during one of his parents' extended stays there. Both liberalism and journalism were a part of his heritage. His father, Henry Villard, was a German immigrant who purchased the New York Evening Post and its weekly supplement, the Nation, in 1881. His mother, Helen Frances Garrison, was the daughter of liberal journalist and abolition leader William Lloyd Garrison. After earning a B.A. from Harvard University in 1893, Villard began writing for the Nation. He completed an M.A., also from Harvard, in 1897, and became an editorial writer for the Post. Villard inherited both publications upon his father's death in 1900 and served as editor of the Post until 1918. That year, he sold the Post but retained the Nation and became its editor, holding that position until 1932, when he turned control over to a board of editors. He stayed on as a contributing editor until 1940, when he resigned over the magazine's increasingly militaristic views. During his time as editor of the Nation Villard found many reasons to remind readers of the importance of freedom of expression. The Espionage Act of 1917 and later the Sedition Act of 1918, prompted by the United States' entry into World War I, limited protests against the war effort. Conscientious objectors were poorly tolerated by both the government and the American public, and Villard, due to his German descent and outspoken pacifism, became suspect. One of Villard's most memorable battles began with an editorial, published in the September 14, 1918 issue of the Nation, which criticized American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, whom the government had assigned to report on labor conditions in Europe. The Postmaster General, under his authority through the Espionage Act, refused to mail the issue of the Nation; Villard successfully appealed to members of the presidential cabinet, and the ban was lifted by order of the President four days later. Villard continued to espouse pacifism throughout his life, but his views became increasingly unpopular with World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died on October 1, 1949.
In addition to his articles written for the New York Evening Post and the Nation, Villard published a large number of books of nonfiction, including notable works of historical biography. These include John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910), a portrait of the anti-slavery agitator, and William Lloyd Garrison (1918), about his abolistionist grandfather. Villard also wrote several works on journalism, including Some Newspapers and Newspapermen (1923) and The Disappearing Daily (1944). The Fighting Years: Memoirs of a Liberal Editor (1939), Villard's memoir, chronicles his life as a pacifist, liberal, and journalist.
Critics praised John Brown as a balanced appraisal of the subject's life and career. “We have here a book, and the only book, in which the unquestioned facts of John Brown's career are completed exhibited,” William MacDonald wrote in a review in the Nation, labeling the work “a solid achievement in the field of historical scholarship.” Some Newspapers and Newspapermen was praised for its comprehensive insight into the world of journalism, but some found the later Disappearing Daily to be derivative. Writing for the American Sociological Review, F. Howard Forsyth asserted, “This book is frankly a rewrite of his previous volume.” Villard's autobiographical Fighting Years encouraged new discussion of liberalism and its impact on America during the twentieth century; its title, Freda Kirchwey observed in the Nation, “is an accurate summing up of his public career.”
The Early History of Wall Street (nonfiction) 1897
William Henry Baldwin: A Life of Civic Endeavor (biography) 1905
Self-Criticism North and South (nonfiction) 1906
John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (biography) 1910
The Objects of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (nonfiction) 1912
Some Weaknesses of Modern Journalism (nonfiction) 1914
Germany Embattled: An American Interpretation (nonfiction) 1915
The United States and Its Foreign Born Citizens (nonfiction) 1915
The Duty of the Press in War Time (nonfiction) 1917
Will the Real Germany Awake? (nonfiction) 1917
Universal Military Training: Our Latest Cure-All (nonfiction) 1918
William Lloyd Garrison (biography) 1918
Some Newspapers and Newspapermen (nonfiction) 1923
Russia from a Car Window (nonfiction) 1929
The Press Today (nonfiction) 1930
Henry Villard: A True Fairy Tale (biography) 1931
The German Phoenix: The Story of the Republic (nonfiction) 1933
Our Military Chaos: The Truth about Defense (nonfiction) 1939
(The entire section is 197 words.)
SOURCE: Bruce, H. Addington. “John Brown of Osawatomie.” New York Times Book Review 15, no. 42 (15 October 1910): 567.
[In the following review, Bruce praises Villard's biography of John Brown as a thorough and conscientious, if controversial, work.]
Mr. Villard's John Brown is a capital example of the thorough, the conscientious and the candidly critical in historical writing. It may well be described as the first really adequate biography of a man who, whatever one may think of the chief acts of his life, has won a conspicuous place among American immortals. In its preparation no available source of information seems to have been neglected. Original documents, contemporary letters and living witnesses have been examined in all parts of the country. Materials never before utilized have been drawn upon, and use has been made of others whose existence has hitherto been unknown. There is a constant citation of authorities, the note references running far into the hundreds, together with an excellent bibliography. The result is a work that not only meets the demands of the modern scientific school but is of a high literary quality. Perhaps the criticism should be made that there is an obvious tendency to go too minutely into detail, but in view of the importance of the subject this fault may readily be condoned.
Like all other students who have given the matter thoughtful...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)
SOURCE: MacDonald, William. Review of John Brown, by Oswald Garrison Villard. Nation 91, no. 2364 (20 October 1910): 357-59.
[In the following review, MacDonald considers Villard's John Brown to be an important achievement in historical biography.]
Of all the men who have held, for some brief space of time, the eye of the American people, none has evoked more diverse estimates of his character, motives, or achievements, or stirred more deeply or lastingly the fountains of enthusiastic praise and bitter hate, than John Brown of Osawatomie. The student of American history finds him acclaimed, on the one hand, as the saviour of Kansas, the chief agent in negro emancipation, and the one sure forerunner of the civil war; and, on the other, denounced as a half-crazy religious enthusiast running amuck in the modern world, a fanatical leader of wild and hopeless enterprises, a criminal, and even a murderer. A whole literature of books, poems, and magazine articles, and a still larger volume of myth, tradition, asseveration, story, and prejudice, have grown up about this extraordinary person. Men and women who never saw him, and who would have fled in terror from his presence, have vied with his companions and intimate friends in describing his appearance and habit of life, or in analyzing his mind and appraising his work, or, more easily, in acclaiming or denouncing him. It would be hard to find,...
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SOURCE: Lovett, Robert Morss. “Personality and the Press.” Nation 117, no. 3046 (21 November 1923): 584-85.
[In the following review, Lovett examines Villard's Some Newspapers and Newspapermen.]
There has been in the last few years a notable increase in the number of books dealing with public opinion in its formation and expression. Obviously this is a result of the war, in which we had the experience of finding ourselves moving under the impulse of mass currents in a direction quite opposite to that prescribed by our national character and tradition, and to a destination which we could never, as individuals, have desired or chosen. We have become curious as to the processes of social psychology by which we were controlled. The war has educated public opinion into self-consciousness. Naturally a prime object of our consideration is the daily press.
Mr. Villard's book [Some Newspapers and Newspapermen] has a more modest aim than Mr. Lippmann set himself in his study of public opinion as an organism. It has a more limited objective than Mr. Upton Sinclair's attempt to psychoanalyze the press in The Brass Check. Some Newspapers and Newspapermen, as its title announces, is a study of the great dailies of the country in the light of their origin, history, environment, political and financial affiliations, and of the men who made and control them. It is a series of...
(The entire section is 1346 words.)
SOURCE: Bonn, M. J. “Why the Republic Fell.” New Republic 74, no. 962 (10 May 1933): 370-71.
[In the following review, Bonn praises The German Phoenix but finds some shortcomings in Villard's analysis.]
The German Phoenix is a generous appreciation of the difficulties under which the German Republic rose, and the achievements standing to its name. It comes at a time when the Phoenix is undergoing a thorough transfiguration which has changed its outer aspect completely. The future alone can show what of the structure erected in the years 1918-19 will survive the violent transformation it is subjected to at present.
Mr. Villard gives a vivid description of the consequences of the Peace of Versailles, and especially of the baneful results for German finance and German economics of the insane reparation settlement. He realizes better than many an expert has done how intensely childish was the imposition of an indefinite indemnity which was fixed only after two years had gone, and the total amount of which rose to such a fantastic figure that it was almost sounder finance to ignore it than to deal with it in a businesslike way. He rightly defends Germany from the reproach of having intentionally swindled her creditors. When a people is asked to pay a bigger tribute than it can afford to raise, it has to borrow the cash, and if the creditor nations who insist on its paying...
(The entire section is 1262 words.)
SOURCE: Lerner, Max. “The Liberalism of O. G. Villard.” New Republic 98, no. 1273 (26 April 1939): 342-44.
[In the following review, Lerner finds that The Fighting Years provides more insight into Villard's milieu than his personality.]
Mr. Villard's book of memoirs [The Fighting Years], compact of militancy, indignation and an underlying sense of failure, lights up a whole period in the history of American liberalism. It does not to the same degree delineate a personality. There is little in it of the interior writing that has marked the creative tradition in modern autobiography, from Rousseau to Henry Adams and Lincoln Steffens. The category it falls into is “this I remember and this I did,” rather than “this is how I shaped my view of life.” Despite the warm chapters on the author's childhood years, on his Harvard days, on his early experiences as a reporter in Philadelphia, there is a poverty in the book of education in its deepest sense. Mr. Villard is not interested in the painful and experimental unfolding of a personality. The focus is always on an impassioned view of the external rather than on a detached view of the internal world. The crowded pages form a portrait gallery of public figures whose lives impinged on that of the writer—Presidents, Prime Ministers, Cabinet officials, generals, journalists, reformers, adventurers. But while Steffens' first question about...
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SOURCE: Gannett, Lewis S. “Villard's Nation.” In One Hundred Years of “The Nation”: A Cenntenial Anthology, edited by Henry M. Christman, pp. 35-40. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
[In the following essay, Gannett examines the social and political impact of The Nation under Villard's editorship.]
I doubt that there was ever another such journalistic heaven as was The Nation in the early post-war years. I came back from France that autumn of 1919 with one ambition in all the world: to land a job on Villard's Nation. I knew what I wanted, and was blissful when I got it: half-time at first, and small pay.
Those were rousing days on Vesey Street. Every week's issue was a new adventure. The country was still in a state of war shock: it was blockading Germans, seeing Reds under every bed, crushing strikes in the name of freedom. And yet there was a breeze of hope in the air, a stirring all around the world. The British Labor Party seemed about to reshape England by a peaceful, democratic revolution; the new German Republic was giving women the vote and establishing works councils in every factory; Russia was a land of wild surmises, where every new and hopeful experiment might be tried out for an eager world to watch. Here at home we had the Plumb plan, a sort of industrial republic for the railroads; new unions about to organize the steel mills; labor banks...
(The entire section is 2548 words.)
SOURCE: Forsyth, F. Howard. Review of The Disappearing Daily, by Oswald Garrison Villard. American Sociological Review 10, no. 2 (April 1945): 324-25.
[In the following review, Forsyth finds many shortcomings in Villard's The Disappearing Daily.]
This book [The Disappearing Daily] by a life-long journalist and supporter of liberal causes is better described by the subtitle as “chapters in American newspaper evolution.” It is in much of its total a series of essays about the chief newspapers and their owners in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington and St. Louis. The selection of cities and of papers is not presented as logical or statistically meaningful, and cannot add up into a compelling argument.
It is doubtful that the author intended such an argument, for this book is frankly a rewrite of his previous volume, Some Newspapers and Newspapermen, published in 1923. Most of the chapters are lifted from the earlier book, polished lightly here and there, or redone in some phases in order to weave into the description certain propositions the author has adopted about President Roosevelt and World War II. Discussion of the Kansas City Star is dropped and Frank Knox, Marshall Field, Eugene Meyer and Frank Gannett and their papers are added. In the first chapter and when improvising a title, Villard was introducing the thesis the title implies.
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SOURCE: Hughes, Helen MacGill. Review of The Disappearing Daily, by Oswald Garrison Villard. American Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (July 1945): 79.
[In the following review, Hughes finds The Disappearing Daily to be an interesting and readable account of the demise of the daily newspaper in America.]
Because of his long and honorable newspaper career, Mr. Villard should be given a respectful hearing whenever he feels moved to speak of the press. He could write the history of half-a-century of American journalism in terms of personal memoirs. This [The Disappearing Daily] volume continues the study begun with the publication of Some Newspapers and Newspapermen in 1923.
The daily is disappearing by way of extinction and amalgamation; its mortality rate is rising. In Villard's opinion it is also disappearing as a democratic force because the publishers are very rich men, committed to the defense of capitalism and conservatism. It is disappearing as a moral force, and the writing of editorials has become a conventional exercise that has no effect on public affairs.
In Newspaper Crusaders Silas Bent did a conscientious job of pinning good-conduct medals on deserving newspapers. Villard does the complementary work of chastising. His chapters are essentially editorials, most of which deplore and view with alarm. He judges newspapers by the...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
SOURCE: Kirchwey, Freda. “Oswald Garrison Villard.” Nation 169, no. 15 (8 October 1949): 340.
[In the following essay, Kirchwey provides a brief history and assessment of Villard's influence on journalism.]
Applied to Oswald Garrison Villard, the word “liberal” never carried a connotation of mildness or indecision. Instead it called up the image of a crusading reformer, animated by strong convictions and fierce indignations, moving in to battle against the many varieties of social and political sin with which his time was so heavily afflicted. He titled his autobiography Fighting Years, and it was an accurate summing up of his public career. His liberalism lay in his devotion to freedom; it included little tolerance for political or other views which differed basically from his own. He would never have disputed another man's right to disagree with him about peace or racial equality or free trade; but it was hard to persuade him that such contrary views were sincerely held or honestly advocated. To him they were simply wrong, and to harbor wrong opinions was at least circumstantial evidence of evil motives. I once heard a famous newspaper publisher say plaintively: “I never could persuade Mr. Villard that I really disbelieved in woman's suffrage; he always thought there was something corrupt about our opposition to it.” This attitude won him a reputation for pugnacity and...
(The entire section is 872 words.)
SOURCE: Gannett, Lewis. “Villard and His Nation.” Nation 171, no. 4 (22 July 1950): 79-82.
[In the following essay, Gannett discusses the place of Villard and The Nation in journalistic history.]
Oswald Garrison Villard liked to think of himself as the simple product of two simple currents: the high-principled idealism of his Abolitionist grandfather, William Lloyd Garrison, and the high-principled realism of his railroad-building father, Henry Villard. He never understood the contradictions within the characters of both those stalwart Americans, or in himself. But it was those contradictions which made Villard the great editor that he was, and Villard's Nation the great paper that it was and is.
To understand Oswald Villard you must remember both the defiant masthead of Garrison's Liberator and the brownstone mansions which Stanford White built for Henry Villard behind St. Patrick's Cathedral—which Henry Villard lost in one of his swift changes of fortune. Oswald Villard grew up in a world full of stubborn principles, and of restless millions.
Garrison's immortal masthead, which Oswald Villard liked to recall several times a week, read, “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard!” Garrison was heard, and he didn't retreat a single inch, even to spare...
(The entire section is 2121 words.)
SOURCE: Thernstrom, Stephan A. “Oswald Garrison Villard and the Politics of Pacifism.” Harvard Library Bulletin 14, no. 1 (winter 1960): 126-52.
[In the following essay, Thernstrom discusses Villard's pacifist beliefs and the effect they had on his editorship of The Nation.]
‘History, if honest history continues to be written, will have one question to ask of our generation,’ Archibald MacLeish wrote in the Nation in May of 1940. Why, he wondered, had America's intellectuals failed to rise to the challenge of Fascism with ‘the arms of scholarship and writing? It is a question the historians will ask with interest—the gentle, detached, not altogether loving interest with which historians have always questioned the impotent spirits of the dead.’1
Less than a month after MacLeish's indictment of ‘The Irresponsibles’ met the eyes of American liberal intellectuals, the Nation quietly announced the resignation of one of its weekly columnists, an angry crusading old man whose energy and influence made him a central figure in the moral crisis that shook American liberalism at the end of the Great Depression. Editor of the Nation in the twenties and early thirties, Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949) was the prophet of a great revolt against militarism in America. For a time, his pacifist views seemed to coincide with those of a whole generation of...
(The entire section is 10670 words.)
SOURCE: Humes, D. Joy. “A Liberal's Concern for Individual Freedoms.” In Oswald Garrison Villard, Liberal of the 1920's, pp. 33-75. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1960.
[In the following essay, Humes discusses Villard's commitment to freedom of speech and press in his life and career.]
The core of liberalism, historically, has been liberty or freedom. It was in the hope of achieving freedom that political democracies were born. The objective was a form of government best suited to guarantee to the individual maximum freedom from arbitrary and unlimited authority. Self-government seemed to offer the best solution.
Long considered a basic condition of successful self-government has been freedom of thought and expression. Only through the free exchange of information, ideas, and opinions can intelligent and wise decisions be made by those who were intended to be the ultimate source of political power. So long has free speech, press, and assembly been recognized as vital if self-government is to be more than just an empty form that Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in the mid-twenties, was moved to comment; “My subject is such an old one as to make it a ground for wonderment that in this day and generation we should still have to be making pleas for freedom of thought and freedom of the press.” Villard reaffirmed their necessity to the maintenance of self-government. “There...
(The entire section is 11848 words.)
Angoff, Charles. “Oswald Garrison Villard and The Nation: A Memoir. Antioch Review 23, no. 2 (summer 1963): 232-40.
[In the following essay, Angoff relates his own personal experiences with Oswald Garrison Villard, both positive and negative.]
I was editor of the Nation for less than a year, only about eight months, in 1935, and was unhappy there. That is twenty-eight years ago, and whatever personal ill-feeling I may have had, I believe, has disappeared. I was unhappy largely because I was disappointed. I had for years had a large respect, nay, an awe of that magazine and its editors. In Harvard, it, along with the New Republic, was my way-shower in the realms of politics and economics and the arts, especially literature. Carl Van Doren and Ludwig Lewisohn and “The Drifter” and Oswald Garrison Villard—these and others told me pretty much what I thought and what I argued for. I took them on faith. Even when I was on the Mercury I had respect for the Nation, despite Mencken's sneers at it.
Almost the first day I was on the Nation—I went there immediately after I left the Mercury—I was depressed by the tired feeling that seemed to pervade the office. I had expected a tenseness of concern for the problems of the world. Instead, I encountered a certain Gemütlichkeit that seemed to me more appropriate to the offices of the...
(The entire section is 3622 words.)
SOURCE: Wreszin, Michael. “Introduction” and “Respectable Reform.” In Oswald Garrison Villard: Pacifist at War, pp. 3-6; 25-37. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965.
[In the following essays, Wreszin provides a brief overview and assessment of Villard's career and discusses the reform issues Villard advocated in The Nation.]
In 1877 Henry Villard, returning to America from a business and pleasure trip abroad, moved into the new and fashionable Westmoreland Apartments at the corner of Seventeenth Street and Fifth Avenue just across from Union Square. The building, fitted out with one of the first private elevators in the city, was young Oswald Garrison Villard's home for a half dozen years of his early childhood. In the late twenties the apartments were torn down and the new edifice of the always old Tammany Hall was constructed on the spot. That fate should have placed a new Tammany Hall on the very place of William Lloyd Garrison's death symbolized to Villard the victory of expedient Realpolitik over principle.1 It could serve as a parable of Villard's losing fight over the three preceding decades.
In 1928 Villard, as editor of The Nation, was for many a prototype of the American liberal, the friend and staunch supporter of all reform. Ellery Sedgwick of The Atlantic announced that The Nation was “incomparably the best weekly...
(The entire section is 6225 words.)
SOURCE: Gronowicz, Anthony. Introduction to Oswald Garrison Villard: The Dilemmas of the Absolute Pacifist in Two World Wars, edited by Anthony Gronowicz, pp. vii-xxi. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983.
[In the following essay, Gronowicz details how Villard used the pages of his newspapers to advance his own fundamental goals, especially that of pacificism.]
Oswald Garrison Villard was owner and editor of the New York Evening Post and The Nation during the first half of the twentieth century. His career as a pacifist paralleled the buildup of the American military from a minor auxiliary of the state to the “military-industrial complex”1 that dominates the economy of today.
The arms buildup began in the 1890's when private American enterprises encouraged government policymakers to develop a strong military, using the argument that national security required protection of foreign markets. Until that time, with the exception of the Civil War, the United States Army had never exceeded twenty-five thousand men. The United States was first industrially in 1880 and therefore possessed the economic capacity for such an endeavor. By the close of World War II the United States had the most powerful military in the world, while its forty-three percent share of industrial output was unsurpassed.
Villard fought against military expansion and...
(The entire section is 6504 words.)