Oswald Garrison Villard Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.”

Principal Works

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 Fighting Years: Memoirs of a Liberal Editor (memoir) 1939

Inside Germany; With an Epilogue: England at War (nonfiction) 1940

Disarmament in the Post War World (nonfiction) 1942

The Disappearing Daily: Chapters in American Newspaper Evolution (nonfiction) 1944

Free Trade, Free World (nonfiction) 1947

How America Is Being Militarized (nonfiction) 1947

How Stands Our Press? (nonfiction) 1947

Oswald Garrison Villard, The Dilemmas of the Absolute Pacifist in Two World Wars [edited by Anthony Gronowicz] (nonfiction) 1983


H. Addington Bruce (review date 15 October 1910)

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 consideration, Mr. Villard is hard put to it to account for John Brown's militant and uncompromising hatred for slavery. He sees clearly enough that Brown's autobiographical statement describing incidents of slavery which he observed in boyhood, is quite futile as an explanatory hypothesis. Why should one who so hated the profession of arms, Mr. Villard pertinently inquires, be the first to take up arms in order to free the slave from his chains? What was there in the humdrum life of an Ohio farmer to cause him to espouse the rôle of a border chieftain in the middle of the nineteenth century? The answer apparently is to be sought in Brown's innate love of freedom, his strenuousness and his proneness to violence. The theory, however, that he was insane, and that his bloody doings in Kansas and Virginia were the frenzied work of a monomaniac, finds no favor with Mr. Villard. Says he, emphatically:

If it could be reasonably declared that he was partially or wholly deranged, it would be easy to explain away those of his acts which at times baffle an interpreter of this remarkable personality—the Pottawatomie murders, for instance. But this cannot be done. Gov. Wise was correct in his estimate of John Brown's mentality; the final proof is the extraordinary series of letters written by him in jail after his doom was pronounced. No lunatic ever penned such elevated and highminded, and such consistent epistles. If to be devoted to one idea, or to a single cause, is to be a monomaniac, then the world owes much of its progress toward individual and racial freedom to lunacy of this variety. If John Brown was insane on the subject of slavery, so were Lucretia Mott and Lydia Maria Child, while Garrison and Phillips and Horace Greeley should never have been allowed to go at large. That their methods of advancing their joint cause differed from John Brown's violent ones, in no wise argues that he...

(The entire section is 1380 words.)

William MacDonald (review date 20 October 1910)

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...

(The entire section is 2720 words.)

Robert Morss Lovett (review date 21 November 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 1346 words.)

M. J. Bonn (review date 10 May 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)

Max Lerner (review date 26 April 1939)

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...

(The entire section is 2983 words.)

Lewis S. Gannett (essay date 1940)

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...

(The entire section is 2548 words.)

F. Howard Forsyth (review date April 1945)

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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Helen MacGill Hughes (review date July 1945)

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...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Freda Kirchwey (essay date 8 October 1949)

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...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Lewis Gannett (essay date 22 July 1950)

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...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)

Stephan A. Thernstrom (essay date winter 1960)

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...

(The entire section is 10670 words.)

D. Joy Humes (essay date 1960)

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...

(The entire section is 11848 words.)

Charles Angoff (essay date summer 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 3622 words.)

Michael Wreszin (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 6225 words.)

Anthony Gronowicz (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 6504 words.)