Written in Stone

An Outside Observer Observed

By Elaine Margolin

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 14, 2009.
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American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
By D.D. Guttenplan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, $35.00.

All smiles: I.F. Stone takes a break from his famed and fearless tenacity.
All smiles: I.F. Stone takes a break from his famed and fearless tenacity.

When only 33, D.D. Guttenplan took on a courageous endeavor that would overwhelm him for the next two decades: He set out to write a substantive biography about the legendary maverick journalist I.F. Stone, a man whom Vincent Canby described in 1973 as someone tough enough to consistently attempt to “passionately expose the fallacies, double-talk, and ignorance of the various rascals in government, elected, appointed, or there simply because of being someone’s friend.”

By almost everyone’s account, Stone, better known as Izzy (short for his birth name Isadore), had phenomenal vigor, intelligence, tenacity and moral authority, and a fearlessness that is sadly absent from our contemporary landscape, where the often vapid Anderson Cooper is admired as a symbol of journalistic excellence for “keeping them honest.” Today’s mostly superficial news coverage, in print and on television, forces us to reflect upon how electrifying Stone was. His sympathy was always for the underdog, and he used all the skills in his possession to expose the perversions and deceptions of our government. Whether it was reporting on the impact of the Depression, or on the hope inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt, or on the rise of Hitler and fascism, or on the ecstasy of Jewish Holocaust survivors arriving in Palestine, Stone was there and would continue to be there, covering the rise of McCarthyism, the street marches in favor of nuclear disarmament and the Vietnam War protests that rocked the country. Guttenplan aptly chronicles Stone’s activism and the currents of history that enveloped the journalist.

Christopher Hitchens recalls meeting Stone in Washington in 1982. The veteran reporter took aside young Hitchens and told him bluntly: “Don’t go to briefings. Don’t have lunch with people in power. Go and read the original transcripts and papers, because the government doesn’t lie to itself.” It was Stone’s fierce independence that permitted him to produce a body of provocative work of which he was proud — describing his reportage as having rendered the “instincts of a scholar to the service of journalism.”

Guttenplan is a competent biographer, but somewhere along his arduous journey he seems to have lost his fire. You finish hungry for more. There’s no compelling psychological portrait of Stone, and Guttenplan doesn’t force himself to take the imaginative leap of faith to present the living, breathing presence that Stone deserves. Stone remains remote and inaccessible, and Guttenplan ultimately loses the man he sets out to find. The author, however, does manage to gain unprecedented access to masses of information from newly declassified documents and from direct interviews with Stone’s widow and the couple’s three grown children. But, although he gathers enormous numbers of dots, Guttenplan is unable to connect them around Stone.

Stone was born Isadore Feinstein. He was the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews who arrived in America at the turn of the century. Stone’s father struggled unsuccessfully for much of his life, and easily would become irritated with his son, who would spend much of his time curled up with a book. Guttenplan tells us about a devastating episode during Stone’s youth, when his mother deliberately swallowed poison and had to be rushed to the hospital, leaving little Izzy terrified and confused. His mother had other self-destructive incidents similar to this one, and Guttenplan notes the irony of omission: The millions of words Stone wrote contain not a single sentence about his mother.

Silence and shame about such things was common for many Jewish families, but Guttenplan missed the opportunity to use these findings as a springboard to probe more deeply into how these events shaped Stone’s nature. We do learn that Stone used humor to win the favor of teachers at school, but he often felt that he was different from the other children, and therefore he was frequently lonesome. He dropped out of college to become a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and soon left for New York, where he wrote for three different newspapers. Guttenplan never successfully explains to us how Stone, who by his own admission was an uncomfortable child, was able to channel his inner resources to become a well-documented force of nature.

The pinnacle of Stone’s success was I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he began in 1953 and ran until 1971. It combined political commentary and investigative journalism, and at its peak had more than 70,000 subscribers. Stone wrote proudly about his newspaper, stating, “Politically, I believe there cannot be a good society without freedom of criticism; the greatest task of society is to find a synthesis of socialism and freedom.” He felt that the mission of I.F. Stone’s Weekly was to “provide radical analysis with a conscientious concern for accuracy, and in studying the current scene to do my very best to preserve human values and free institutions.” The main criticism hurled at Stone was that he remained sympathetic to communist ideology and Soviet Russia for too long. While the author concedes that Stone was slow in acknowledging the brutal horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, Guttenplan is attracted to Stone’s steadfast refusal to swing over to the side of the anti-communist right. Stone always remained a liberal, a believer in civil rights and free expression, and considered himself a patriot. Guttenplan reminds us that Stone once said about himself, “You may think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive.”

Guttenplan, unlike Stone, seems reluctant to embrace human complexity and messiness, and this thwarts his effort. His narrative feels too neat and tidy, almost boxy. Stone understood that man is irrational, ambivalent, uncertain and often scared. In a 2006 Vanity Fair article, Hitchens quotes Stone confronting his own faltering humanity. Stone said:

Since every man is a microcosm, in whose heart may be read all that sends armies marching, I must admit I am no better. Because so many bonds attach me to Israel, I am ready to condone preventative war; I rejoiced when my side won. Though I preach international understanding and support for the U.N., I found all the excuses for Israel that warring nationalisms always find to excuse breaches of peace. And that is how it always is and how it starts, and I offer the mote in my own eye.

Elaine Margolin is a freelance book reviewer and essayist for The Jerusalem Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications.

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