Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America BY Franklin Foer. Harper Perennial. Paperback, 608 pages. $17.

The cover of Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

In December, Franklin Foer was deposed from atop the New Republic. Facebook-millionaire owner Chris Hughes and his content-flacking flunky Guy Vidra clumsily installed onetime Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder as Foer’s successor. TNR, it was announced, must become a competitor in the Internet’s content-mining industry. Then almost everyone quit!

The staff and stakeholders were rightly furious, if a bit grandiose and dramatic: The mess really was a mess; Vidra truly is an idiot. Unlike almost any other publication, TNR lived for the past century in a bubble largely uncorrupted by commerce. And so the legacy of the old rag was obituaried far and extremely wide.

Which opened for discussion: What actually is TNR’s legacy?

Fortunately, Foer answered this himself with the recent release of the magazine’s centenary anthology, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (Harper Perennial, $28), an “intellectual biography” of TNR’s take on “American liberalism,” that sweaty and reversible coat of ideas. (Liberalism, it turns out, mostly means you can get your war on and later regret it.)

Of its fifty-two essays—starting with one, bless, by Rebecca West—maybe five are exceptional in the hundred-year sampling. Hendrik Hertzberg on the shambles of Ronald Reagan in September 1991—wonderful, brutal, and too late. (“It was Reagan’s genius to paste a smiley-face on Armageddon’s grinning skull.”) Margaret Talbot on Martha Stewart—the best piece in the entire collection—was, in 1996, right on time. Every sentence is perfect. (“Children she makes use of as accessories, much like Parisian women deploy little dogs.”)

Other highlights include: Edmund Wilson’s incredible “Progress and Poverty” from 1931; Virginia Woolf’s dizzy and deathly 1940 account of the Blitz; a delightful and slight piece by Nabokov on translation from 1941. The other nine-tenths of the book range from good to fine to mostly intelligible. This is a pretty good ratio for most magazines! Spy should be so lucky.

Still, even with its best foot forward, TNR isn’t magic. One of the essays held up for special mention in Foer’s introduction is Richard Rovere’s mild attack on Arthur Miller for his refusal to name names during the McCarthy hearings. Foer writes that it’s a “masterful dissection” of the variety of “fine distinctions that were actually quite important” in the substance of Miller’s testimony. But Rovere’s piece is nearly without meaning or any lingering historical value. It is probably wrong, definitely hair-splitting, and full of inept and oddly legalistic extrapolations.

The great Murray Kempton appears with something short on the 1963 March on Washington, but, well, this is not one of his great pieces. It made me put the book down and go read Renata Adler’s 1965 “Letter from Selma.”

There is also Andrew Sullivan’s landmark attack on domestic partnership, disguised as the conservative case for gay marriage. It comes off, in the wake of the long culture war since its publication in 1989, as forward-looking, sure, but also a little cruel.

Zadie Smith’s piece on Kafka is lovely; other offerings are too insidery, too internal, even too unreadable for those of us without Ivy League indoctrinations. TNR was never a magazine intended to welcome and persuade a wider readership; it was always a magazine for People Who Matter, an ever-smaller club. TNR, Foer writes, “wasn’t intended to be a clubby conversation among the hyperliterate,” but intentions aren’t everything.

What if now we accord a born-into-it, entitled class of elites no special respect? What if there were a legacy, but the rest of us weren’t invited to care?

TNR’s past century of mental insurrection is a deep morgue where wild and surprising work can be unearthed. That the book squeezed in all of six women and a very few nonwhite people is also its legacy. I saw Sullivan shortly after the coup, and he said that he planned to write a piece explaining the vast foaming whiteness of the magazine’s intellectual sea. That troubling take, like so many others on TNR and its Big-Picture Meaning, will surely go with the snows. And then? The magazine, presumably restaffed with whoever dares, will return.

In an afterword, the new owner Hughes explains that he, too, can be ambivalent about commerce. “Even if the economic logic of an enterprise like ours may drift toward timely news and entertaining content, our expertise and passion lie elsewhere with depth, analysis, and context. . . . Perhaps the market will not make institutions like ours enormous profit-making businesses, but there is more to the mission than the balance sheet.” A few months later, this pseudo-earnest flourish could only inspire rueful horselaughs. Hughes’s deployment of the phrase “entertaining content” is a fine enough reason to quit working for the man anyway. Also, the passive relation to “the market” conveyed here is so real. An accidentally rich man would naturally see the world in terms of lottery-style jackpots on capitalism’s Wheel of Fortune. The market giveth, etc.

Usually it takes decades, not just a few months, for a book’s acknowledgments to become sad or bitter-making to read. In this case, Foer closes the show by thanking several saviors, who, he writes, “helped guide the magazine to the Chris Hughes era, where we can (for once) sleep soundly about the future of this enterprise we love.” There, at least, is a worthy lesson for would-be insurrectionists: Don’t sleep through your golden era—you’ll never believe how rapidly it can vanish.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).