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James T. KeaneApril 13, 2009
Photo by Daniela Holzer on Unsplash

Reaching a century of weekly publication of a magazine is no mean feat, and the editors and staff of America should be forgiven if some of the contents of this centennial issue strike the reader as a bit, well, self-congratulatory. We’ve gotten plenty of things right in the past 100 years and written some prescient and perceptive journalism about the church and the world; and maybe those accomplishments have given us something of an ego. There is a surefire cure for pride, however, and it is as simple as a reminder of some of the moments when we got things just a little wrong. Or a lot wrong.

An article of recent vintage in America serves as a fine example. It contained a reference to a certain Bishop Blasé Cupich of Rapid City, S.D. We hardly think this fits our good friend Bishop Blase (and we doubt the author does either), but our automated spell-check function apparently does not like Bishop Blase’s attitude, or at least the way he spells his first name. The computer has no problem with such tongue twisters as the name of our friend and contributor Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator, S.J., mind you, but it tricked us into maligning poor Bishop Blase. They stick in the craw, such errors, so much so that one is tempted to ask for relief through the intercession of St. Blase. Er, St. Blaise. See the problem?

There is a surefire cure for pride, and it is as simple as a reminder of some of the moments when we got things just a little wrong. Or a lot wrong.

Mistakes were made

Even Homer nods, as the ancient copyists of the Iliad used to write in the margins when a text’s grammar or metrics did not scan, and no copy editor in the world can catch everything. That having been said, less forgivable in America’s history have been some of our seemingly judicious edits that were, in retrospect, a little naïve or a lot misinformed. Flannery O’Connor, for example, did not care much for the magazine’s decision to rewrite a paragraph of the essay she submitted in 1957, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” and history has perhaps vindicated her as a better writer of prose than the clever Jesuit who altered her text (Wise Blood had been published five years before). The editors offered their belated apology in the magazine’s 90th anniversary issue in 1999.

Nor did our film reviewer, Richard Blake, S.J., think it appropriate that we titled his 2003 “Mystic River” review “Sin and Suffering in South Boston.” Like many a New Yorker before and since, America’s headline writer did not have the best geographical sense of areas not visible from the Empire State Building. The error, Blake lamented, had cost him much of his Boston cachet. “Moving South Boston across town to the Mystic would be like having the Brooklyn Bridge span the mighty Hudson, or the Ohio shoulder its way past the levees of New Orleans, or young lovers in Paris stroll hand-in-hand along the embankment of the Volga,” Blake wrote. “As a result of this bases-loaded error on a fielder’s choice, my ration of beans and brown bread has been halved.”

“Moving South Boston across town to the Mystic would be like having the Brooklyn Bridge span the mighty Hudson, or the Ohio shoulder its way past the levees of New Orleans."

Chivalry or chauvinism?

America also occasionally perpetuated an absurd stereotype or two, especially during its early years, when women were not allowed to write signed articles and the editorial board was dominated by Jesuits of Hibernian descent. In the very first issue of the magazine, a report on Italian politics announced that “recent elections showed the Italian people are unfitted for the use of the ballot.” Since the sole editor of Italian descent, Dominic Giacobbi, S.J., struggled to read or write English (at least according to his editor in chief), he was presumably unaware that his ethnic heritage had been besmirched.

But Italians were not the only group subject to essentialist caricatures in these pages. A quarter-century later, G. K. Chesterton asserted in his column: “The Englishman always says exactly what he means, or just a little less than he means. The Frenchman says so exactly the opposite of what he means that it seems to have more exactitude than the other. He excels in that inversion of the importance and the unimportant, which has often made French wit seem to dunces more mystifying than mysticism....”

Italians were also not the only ones whose suitability for the ballot was questioned by America. When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote, the editors fretted about the damage universal suffrage might do to so delicate a creature as woman. “Now that all American women are to have the vote, the moral and social effects of this vast extension of suffrage rights will be noted by thoughtful men with deep concern,” they wrote in September 1920. “Is the contest with men in the grimy ‘game’ of politics sure to vulgarize and coarsen woman’s fine nature, or will her love for purity and high ideals enable her to breathe without serious injury the air of the caucus-room and the polling-place? Time will tell.”

Earlier that summer they were even less sanguine, conceding that “whatever may have been the personal doubts or misgivings of many who questioned this movement, upon the passage of woman suffrage there can remain but one question of practical importance. That is: how can women be taught to use the vote most wisely and effectively?” Other contributors added their own unfortunate misgivings, including the book reviewer Myles Connolly. Connolly, who eight years later published the best-selling novel Mr. Blue, wrote “It is not simply a question of the vote…. It is a question of man doing man’s work, and living man’s life, and woman woman’s… the truth remains that they will never be man’s equal. Aping him, they are inferiors. Cultivating their own natural aptitudes, they can be supreme.” For the record, this is no longer America’s editorial policy.

On domestic topics, America has also occasionally proved that a well-educated cadre of editors and contributors can transform with ease into an elitist claque.

The view from Manhattan

On the international scene, parsing politics correctly also proved quite a challenge over the years, and America’s editors put their collective foot in the mouth every now and then when reporting on the affairs of nations on distant continents. Witness the small story from March 1971 in which the editors praised General Idi Amin, who had recently seized power in a military coup in Uganda. They noted his “common-sense voice” that was coming through “loud and clear from Africa.”

The extent of the erratic and genocidal dictator’s antics became clearer in the ensuing years, but America’s editors did not entirely learn their lesson. Less than a decade later, the magazine reported on another political arriviste, Zimbabwe’s new prime minister Robert Mugabe, and praised him as “the very essence of reassurance and conciliation.” Mugabe, they announced, demonstrated “skill and persuasiveness,” and was “far more levelheaded than [his opponents] thought.” The fact that Zimbabwe was at peace (and that Mugabe was making overtures to his opponents in order to form a coalition government) was “a tribute to Mr. Mugabe’s political skills.” Recent years have proved Mugabe’s political skills beyond doubt, but his three decades of iron rule over a destitute Zimbabwe have hardly been a time of “reassurance and conciliation.”

On domestic topics, America has also occasionally proved that a well-educated cadre of editors and contributors can transform with ease into an elitist claque. Witness a report from 1929 on the unexpectedly slow increase in the number of students enrolling in college nationwide that year. In response, the editors sniffed that “only the exceptional boy and girl are really capable of deriving any sound profit from a college course.” The nation had spoiled many a valuable manual laborer, the editors claimed, because of our “silly dogma of democracy in education,” which created “a plumber gone wrong, a bricklayer frustrated, a possible tugboat captain whose raucous bellowing will never drown out the blast of the foghorn.” The finished product of such education, the editors harrumphed, “is assuredly not an educated man.”

Common cause

Elitist or not in its editorial outlook, America found one working-class cause in that same decade that it could support without question: the repeal of Prohibition. From the moment the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for consumption officially became illegal in the United States in 1919 until the day the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, the editors rarely let a week pass without grumbling about teetotaling Methodists (or, for several paranoid letter writers, teetotaling Masons). Though their argument against Prohibition was usually presented as a case for state’s rights, the sheer indignation they expressed suggests fear of federalism was not their only quibble. “The people who made the Constitution may unmake it if they wish,” declared an editorial in June 1920.

As the years passed, what had at first been short editorial asides against Prohibition’s apparent promotion of illegal behavior grew into far-ranging broadsides against the legislation’s scope and effect. Would Mass become illegal in the United States, the editors darkly mused, because of the need to use sacramental wine? (The use of wine for religious purposes was almost universally accepted during Prohibition, truth be told). Would local gendarmes in small-town America use the excuse of enforcing Prohibition as a cover for breaking into private homes without a warrant? Was the British government scheming to pass similar laws in its own territories as one more indignity to be placed upon the luckless Irish nation? And back at home, would lawlessness overtake America’s eastern cities?

When Prohibition finally ended, the editors denounced government attempts to regulate alcohol consumption as a “disastrous attack upon public and private peace and sobriety” and indignantly complained that “members of Congress were freely permitted to drink wet, provided that they continued to vote dry.” At the same time, they made it clear their objection was to the folly of giving the federal government control over an issue properly left to the states or, even more properly, left to “the benign influence of religion.”

Finally, the poets

The national Catholic weekly has also occasionally featured authors whose later antics brought it some embarrassment, including the articles and poetry of a literary editor with a brilliant mind and a talent for comic verse, Leonard Feeney, S.J. Feeney published frequently in America and earned a certain amount of fame for his numerous books, including a book of essays, Fish on Friday. He grew much more famous a few years later for a different reason: his excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1953 for refusing to accept the church’s definition of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“there is no salvation outside the church”). Though Feeney was reconciled to the church in 1974 (Avery Dulles, S.J., wrote his obituary for America), his establishment of his own schismatic religious community, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and his long fight with church authorities overshadowed his literary genius until his death in 1978.

A second contributor whose intellectual evolution made him an embarrassment was Ezra Pound, an American-born writer who came to fame for his poetry but fell into disgrace as an anti-Semite and quisling. Pound would likely have been executed for treason by the United States after World War II had he not been able to convince his doctors that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. In 1940 Pound wrote two somewhat rambling essays on monetary policy for America, the second of which denounced Winston Churchill as “possibly the most phenomenal bungler in British affairs since the ill-starred Island lost the thirteen American Colonies.” Within a year, Pound was delivering the pro-fascist propaganda broadcasts on Italian radio that would later result in his arrest by the United States for treason.

The aforementioned list represents a varied cast of characters and themes, and, for the most part, a distinguished though somewhat tarnished catalogue of authors and opinions, if also a regrettable catalogue of errors. But, with 4,852 issues under the belt as of this issue, we were bound to make a few mistakes. And as for those authors and those articles—well, most of them seemed like a good idea at the time. Perhaps the 21st century will offer no such troubles.

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Paul Leddy
14 years 11 months ago
I commend James T. Keane, S.J. for bravely admitting in public his deficiency in character. I pray for him
Halbert Weidner
14 years 11 months ago
If my memory serves me right, AMERICA also was highly critical of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers who founded the Maryknoll Sisters and gave a talk to the Catholics at Columbia University saying that she had discovered her vocation at Smith College and that Catholics could serve God on secular campuses. That was too much for the Jesuits! I believe AMERICA apologized...after she died.

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