Oswald Garrison Villard Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”