The Baffler is back from the dead . . . again
If you celebrated the 2009 announcement that political wag Thomas Frank was resurrecting his cult mag, The Baffler, only to watch, crestfallen, as the effort petered out after just one issue, take heart: The Baffler lives again. And this time it’s for keeps … Maybe. Fingers crossed. Those familiar with the mag’s history know that it has already risen from the dead more times than a George Romero zombie. Still, with a full editorial staff bankrolled by MIT Press, and a shiny new issue ready to hit the stands in mid-March, The Baffler is showing real signs of life this time.
In some ways, the latest Baffler looks less like a reboot than a rebirth. Instead of Frank at the helm, there’s a new captain—writer and history professor John Summers. Summers has transplanted the business and culture magazine from Chicago to Boston and installed his own crew, including wife Anna, who serves as the mag’s new literary editor. But fear not, while the guard may have changed, the mission—to undress the Emperor and perform a full and unflinching diagnostic—has not. And as founding editor and now contributor, it looks as if Frank plans to keep his toe in the water, along with a handful of other Baffler alums.
Summers, an academic best known for editing a collection of radical sociologist C. Wright Mills’s writings, shares a similar pedigree with Frank, a fellow lapsed Republican, as well as other Baffler alums. Like Baffler senior editor Chris Lehmann, Summers is a product of the University of Rochester’s history program—a program that, apparently, believes it is the public intellectual’s duty not just to speak truth to power, but to breathe fire in its face. Summer’s opening salvo in Issue 19, “Descrendo,” a mournful exploration of the mythos of American Capitalism, reads like something out of James Agee. And if that doesn’t get his perspective across Summers goes the extra step and actually prints a newly discovered manuscript of Agee’s at the end of the issue. Sandwiched in between these two pieces is a selection of incisive and highly entertaining articles on history, politics, technology and media, and the economy. Somehow even the economics pieces manage not to be crushingly boring.
Issue 19 isn’t without its missteps. (A one-pager about the signature scent created for the Baffler by Yosh Han, the McSweeney’s crowd’s personal perfumer? What now?) But these are overshadowed by the magazine’s array of pleasures. In “Too Smart to Fail: Notes on an Age of Folly” Frank rails against the Establishment that paved the way for the Great Recession, first asserting it was an impossibility and then insisting it was impossible to predict. In “Ronald Reagan’s Imaginary Bridges” Rick Perlstein describes the mood of pessimism that permeated America post-Watergate and how Ronald Reagan’s pie-eyed patriotism seemed like the perfect antidote. Sharp-tongued political pieces like these are counterbalanced by poetry, fiction, and more satirical articles, like Jim Newell’s “I Was a Teenage Gramlich,” but even these stay largely on message. And the message is this: Rome is burning and it’s time to put down your fiddle and grab a bucket.