Biographer. Historian. Editor. Journalist. Satirist
I'm from Crawfordsville, Indiana, born in a brick house right across the street from the study of Gen. Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur. Growing up in a Midwestern town would later inspire me to seek to understand the role of the small town in American history and the life of Sinclair Lewis, author of two catalytic novels, Main Street and Babbitt. As Lewis said about his own home town, it was a good start in life.
After graduating from high school, I followed Lewis east, attending Haverford College, an academically rigorous school near Philadelphia where I majored in sociology and minored in American Lit. My senior paper was a biographical study of Lewis. Graduating in 1953, I was caught in the tail end of the Korean War. (This period would be an indirect inspiration for my current project, a history of America between 1945 and 1950, exploring the fate of liberal idealism between victory and Cold War.) I enlisted in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps and found myself plunked in an appalling hotbed of mccarthyism. By luck of the draw, I ended up in Japan, semi-undercover and spying on ultra-nationalist groups.
Discharged in 1956, I entered Yale Law School—but decamped after a year sadly persuaded that I was not legal material. While at Yale, as a diversion from studying tax law, I started writing parodies and pasquinades for Monocle, a self-styled leisurely quarterly of political satire founded by law and graduate students, which appeared twice a year. Editor and fellow law student Victor Navasky recruited me to write for it. In 1960 we regrouped in New York where Navasky had raised startup money for regular publication. As executive editor I wrote for and edited the magazine, which appeared quarterly, and a satiric weekly called “The Outsider’s Newsletter.” Thus, as a law school dropout I began my career as an editor and writer.
Monocle, America’s only magazine of political satire, eventually succumbed to cash-flow problems. To pay the rent, its editors formed a book-packaging company. To pay my rent I free-lanced for the New York Times Magazine and Book Review and a number of other publications. I also co-authored or edited several books of humor, including a Monocle anthology and satires on “camp” and diet and health books. I wrote two books: Drugs from A to Z, a dictionary of slang and illicit substances published by McGraw-Hill, and Don't You Know There’s A War On?, a social history of the American home front during World War II, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It sold fairly well and was an alternate selection of the Literary Guild. In 2003 a new edition was published by Nation Books.
In 1969 I joined the staff of the Times Book Review, remaining there for nine years. During this stint I previewed and assigned books for reviews, wrote a weekly column of publishing news called “Book Ends” and moonlighted as a substitute daily reviewer. During those years I researched and completed my third book, Small Town America, a narrative of the role of the small town in American history, which was published by Putnam’s in 1980. It received a cover review in The New York Times Book Review and was nominated for an American Book Award.
By then I had left the Times to become executive editor of The Nation, America’s oldest political weekly, holding down this post from 1978 to 1996 when I became a senior editor. I have written many articles, editorials, book reviews and satires for the magazine. My latest book was published by Nation Books under the title “The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War. 1945-1950.”
After Small Town America appeared, I launched myself into a major biography of Theodore Dreiser, an undertaking which, along with my job. would occupy the next ten years of my life. The biography appeared in two volumes, in 1986 and 1990. Volume II of the hardcover edition won a Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year Award in 1990. John Wiley brought out an abridged paperback version, Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1871-1945, in 1993. In 2002 Random House published the biography I had been waiting many years to write, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street,. It was followed by Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships in 2005 (Random House) and The Nation Guide to the Nation in 2009 (Vintage), an activist's guide to the history and contemporary culture of the American left.
In summer 1999 the Berkshire Theater Festival produced Starr's Last Tape. by Victor Navasky and me, a one-character play satirizing the Monica Lewinsky affair. Earlier in my career, I had dabbled in comedy writing, creating material for Al Bernie, Alan King and the BBC's That Was the Week That Was. I have also contributed straight and satiric articles to Vanity Fair, Playboy, Esquire and other periodicals.
I have served on the board of P.E.N., and the council of the Authors Guild. I joined the National Book Critics Circle at its inception. I am also a member of the Society of American Historians. Following the appearance of Small Town America, I spoke at several symposiums on small town problems and became a member of the board of the Small Town Institute (now defunct). In 1988 I was an American Participant for the U.S. Information Agency, lecturing on small town America and The Nation in five European countries. I have also made a number of speeches on Theodore Dreiser at colleges and libraries in the United States. I served on the non-fiction and biography juries for the Pulitzer Prize and the jury for the Parkinson Prize for the Society of American Historians. I was awarded a 1997 Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete a biography of Sinclair Lewis. I am on the editorial board of American Literary Naturalism, successor to Dreiser Studies.
My most recent book is The Noir Forties, published in November 2012.
Reviewed by Barbara Spindel
The book is at its best when it hews close to Lingeman's enlightening central thesis; he excels at portraying the uncertain postwar mood and the way that films noir were uniquely able to capture that mood. (Even if accidentally: Lingeman explains that the dark lighting and use of smoke and mirrors characteristic of the genre were deployed out of necessity to disguise the cheap props and shabby sets that resulted from wartime’s material shortages.) "Fictional war films seemed phony because they competed with the real war in magazine and newsreels," he writes, "while in the hard-boiled crime films death was more real because it was shown in an unidealized, unheroic way." Many of the violent crime films, like the 1946 classic The Blue Dahlia, featured veterans and reflected the country's conflicting feelings toward the men who'd fought the fight: gratitude, but also guilt over what they had sacrificed, resentment over the claims they were making on society, fear that they were ticking time bombs capable of resorting to the violent acts they'd been trained to commit during wartime.
As the Cold War consensus hardened, Film noir gave way to the rabidly anti-Communist movies that Lingeman calls "film rouge." In the wake of the Hollywood blacklist, "even the Communist writers were writing anti-Communist movies," according to a quip from the period. And by the time Harry Truman sent American forces to South Korea's aid in June 1950, even 1948's "peace candidate" Henry Wallace was expressing vocal support for this new war. Times had indeed changed.
One might think that the national revulsion at 400,000 Americans losing their lives in World War II would have created a zeal for peace at any cost. And yet a mere 5 years after the orgy of celebration in Times Square, the nation was at war again, this time in Korea. In his latest work, biographer/historian Richard Lingeman connects the dots to explain how this conundrum came to be. As he writes, "by 1946 the postwar mood was (already) tinged with anxiety about another depression, the atomic bomb and tensions with the Soviet Union." He uses American culture as a backdrop in demonstrating that these insecurities and anxieties played out in watching a new film genre that the press called "red meat films" and French critics later "more elegantly titled film noir."
—Steve Goddard’s History Wire
THE NOIR FORTIES
The American People From Victory to Cold War
By Richard Lingeman
Illustrated. 420 pp. Nation Books. $29.99.
Molly Haskell [front page review, NY Times Book Review
...here is nothing unsung about film noir, those harsh and lurid little tales reeking of European-style fatalism. The genre has been the subject of a whole range of books, some of them superb, tracing the many tributaries feeding these pools of bile in a cinema that leans too persistently toward the sun. Lingeman’s point of entry is through his own years as a veteran, and he understands firsthand the sense of displacement, the frightening and disorienting experience of being thrown into an alien culture (for him, Japan) and then thrust back upon the shores of a homeland that seems almost as alien. But movies, as it turns out, play a relatively small role in a book that’s more interested in the always perilous struggle of America’s liberals and progressives. Lingeman’s discussion of films is never less than interesting, and he understands the paradox of a politically repressive period leading to some of the most inventive films ever made, often with subliminal blacklisting themes.
Reviewed by Laurence I. Barrett
Richard Lingeman takes readers through the five years following conquest of the Axis. In an elegiac tone, he mourns the vanished hopes he shared during that roiled time.
A journalist of eclectic accomplishment who has spent most of his career at The Nation, Lingeman is at home with his subject. One of his several well-received books was Don’t You Know There’s a War On: the American Home Front, 1941 – 1945. The new work is, in part, a sequel – a narrative describing the evolving popular mood as foreign and domestic politics played out. But The Noir Forties contains what amounts to a second book: a history of the noir genre and a complex argument that the dark crime melodramas reflected Cold War psychology. Lingeman, after all, is a cultural historian fascinated with movies.
Laurence I. Barrett spent three dozen years in print journalism, first at the New York Herald Tribune, then at TIME. His first byline in a non-campus publication, however, appeared in The Nation in 1956, when he was a college senior. Later he contributed occasional articles as well. Lingeman came to The Nation after Barrett stopped writing for it.
The Noir Forties:
The American People from Victory to Cold War
Richard Lingeman. Nation, $29.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-56858-436-2
In this candid reappraisal of America’s postwar era, Lingeman (Don’t You Know There’s a War On?), a veteran senior editor of the Nation, covers the years between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Korean War, focusing specifically on the shift of the American mood during this time from one of vague apprehension to a pointed distrust of the nation’s stability. The author shows how this decline into a noir sensibility was abetted by the homecomings of battle-scarred veterans, anxiety over future international conflicts, and the vicious anticommunist crusades in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. In “unlocking the psychology” of the general mood, Lingeman traces how this dark disposition manifested in literature, music, and film, but the book’s greatest triumph is in its depiction of the gradual change in the American populace’s collective journey from the pessimism of the Great Depression, through the hope of a burgeoning postwar middle class, to a climate of fear in the McCarthy era and on into the cold war. Lingeman served the U.S. for two years in the ’50s as a counterintelligence operative in Japan, and this “historical enlargement of [his] smaller personal memories” is an insightful and illuminating blend of history and cultural criticism. (Dec. 4)
Reviewed on: 10/15/2012
—Charles Fecher, Chicago Tribune