In January 2010 The Baffler, the influential Chicago-based culture and politics journal cofounded by Thomas Frank in 1988, put out an impressive new issue, its first in three years. George Packer heralded the journal’s return in the New Yorker, writing that it was “a perfect moment for The Baffler’s kind of cultural criticism to be revived.” But the revival was lamentably brief. Despite the issue’s high quality and success—three Pushcart nominations, two book contracts born from pieces in the magazine—no follow-up emerged. By the fall of 2010, Frank was looking for a successor.
Fans of the Baffler style in American politics, rejoice. Frank has selected the bold critic, editor, and fellow history Ph.D. John Summers to head a revamped Baffler. Frank explains the decision: "We chose John Summers because he has a Baffleresque attitude, by which I mean he writes with an impressive ferocity about the cultural issues that have always interested us." Summers has purchased the journal, moved it to Cambridge, and will employ Frank to continue as an editor and contributor. Frank plans to help steer the transition, in addition to writing his monthly column for Harper’s, and finishing up a book on the Conservative backlash. Long-time Baffler editor Chris Lehmann will also continue his work at the journal (while he co-edits Bookforum, promotes his recently published book Rich People Things, and works as a managing editor for Yahoo! News’s blogs). Summers has also enlisted former Harper’s editor Roger Hodge for an editorial role at the magazine, and Summers’s spouse, the scholar and translator Anna Summers, will be the magazine’s literary editor. “Too often, we think of cultural criticism as a sort of twee luxury, with little to say about the social myths that govern economic reward and punishment," says Lehmann, describing the journal's mission. "The Baffler has always treated management theory and cut-rate Reaganite propaganda as something as worthy of serious criticism as anything on the literary scene, or in the indie-rock world. Indeed, the magazine has always sought to stress the connections between these bizarre worlds, instead of the small differences that allegedly quarantine them from each other.”
Summers’s background and writing show that he is well suited for the job. Like Frank, he sees The Baffler as the continuation of a rich tradition of dissident American social comment. His essays (some found in the collection Every Fury on Earth) span multiple disciplines, are passionate and witty, and reveal a keen understanding of the way that wealth distorts intellectual discourse. He avoids pretension like the plague, and his criticism is direct and fearless. As Richard Byrne wrote in Bookforum: “His sentences resound with the clatter and clank of fresh thought coming hard up against the intellectual armor protecting powerful institutions.” Summers is thoroughly schooled in the ethos and art of the social critic: He has spent years editing and writing about C. Wright Mills, and edited a forthcoming Dwight Macdonald anthology. Summers has taught at Harvard, Columbia, and Boston College, where he resigned his yearlong appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor of History after one semester, deciding, as he put it, that he had "had enough of the adjunct life.” Summers’s former colleague at Boston College, professor Alan Wolfe, says of Summers’s new job: “For all the talk of a crisis in publishing, we are living in an era of great intellectual excitement and debate. The big question is not whether people will have anything to say, but in what venues they will be saying it. I believe the efforts by John Summers can help answer that question, and I really look forward to what happens to The Baffler under his leadership.”
Summers is busy building a solid foundation for the magazine’s long-term success and contacting subscribers to tell them the good news: The Baffler is back, with online content beginning in August, and a new print issue in the fall (tentatively titled Your Money and Your Life, a gloss on the Tea Party slogan). Summers plans to keep the journal’s signature mix of long-form essays, columns, fiction, art, and poetry, while also adding some new sections. Planned features include “Lives of the Pundits,” which will be a mock profile series of the faux-profound thinkers that pass as today’s social observers, and “Ancestors,” which will reprint an exemplary essay from authors such as Thoreau, Wilde, Paul Lafargue (author of the classic 1883 tract “The Right to be Lazy”), and others, accompanied by commentary. Summers says he hopes these pieces will “tutor readers in the disparity of wealth and virtue, money and morality [and] discourage the impoverished from resigning their struggle too soon.”
Summers is committed to print, saying “I see no more reason to abandon print than there was to abandon radio in the 1940s, at the dawn of television.” He is working to ensure that the new Baffler has a healthy digital future as well, and is currently consulting with top digital content designers. The journal plans to announce a redesigned website, new digital platforms, editorial content, and personnel over the next few months. As of now, Summers foresees at least two web-only components of the journal: A “Salvo” on Mondays to kick off the week with an argumentative essay, and a “Notebook” later in the week—both available for sale as .pdf files. Of course, the magazine will deploy social media tools as well—The Baffler authors have a gift for trenchant tweets, and the journal regularly got thumbs-up from fans and friends long before Facebook turned “like”-ing something into a conspicuous barometer of personal taste.
The 2000s were difficult years for The Baffler—after an office fire in 2001, only two issues were published before 2010. Loyal readers have sorely missed the magazine’s brand of satire, smarts, and jargon-free critique of its heyday in the 1990s. As Lehmann says, "the magazine began by puncturing myths in the target-rich era of nineties boom culture. And weirdly, most of that era's signature delusions remain as influential as ever today—the Internet delivers social revolutions with a few taps of a keyboard, economic regulation is an atavistic burden of the dead gray past, etc. It's just that the stakes are much higher now." The Baffler presciently warned of the housing and tech bubbles, and lamented Wall Street’s self-destructive mix of incompetence, brazenness, and vast sense of self-importance. As Summers wrote in a recent Baffler prospectus, the time is right for a comeback: “I cannot think of another journal better prepared to analyze the myths and dogmas of conservative rule or to anathematize the boom-and-bust style of life to which the country appears to be committed.” Novelist and one of Time magazine’s official People Who Matter 2010, Jonathan Franzen, agrees—he reportedly mailed a donation with a note of encouragement that read: “Viva la Baffler!”