Tribes of America Back In Print

Rick Perlstein’s CJR piece sparked a mini-crusade

In our November/December 2004 issue we launched “Second Read,” an ongoing series of essays in which writers revisit books, and other collections of journalism, that influenced their own work or contain insights and ideas that remain relevant today. In that inaugural piece, Rick Perlstein, the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and the forthcoming sequel Nixonland, wrote about the late Paul Cowan’s 1979 book, The Tribes of America, which explored the culture wars before they had a name.

Perlstein set a very high bar for the feature. His essay was written with passion and he connected Cowan’s work to the coverage of today’s culture wars and the rise of the neocons. But beyond that, and more important, Perlstein got at some truly sticky journalistic terrain in a way—not preachy but empathically—that gives his essay a timeless quality that criticism often lacks. He calls Tribes “one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read by any journalist,” and then says why:

It was courage that allowed him to achieve it, though courage of a certain sort. Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that?

The ability to identify our biases and blind spots, to transcend them as much as humanly possible and thereby be open to understanding the people we write about on a much deeper, more genuine level, is among journalism’s greatest challenges. Cowan, who died of cancer in 1988, had it in spades. Perlstein writes that Cowan

looked inside himself. He found sins — his own sins, not the sins of some abstraction called “the left,” to be rejected as such — and he reckoned with them. Which is hard work. He tested his prejudices against reality, about as deeply as anyone could test them; he embraced new principles, cleaving to the ones worth keeping. He saw virtues in bourgeois virtue. But that didn’t paralyze his conscience. He saw that America had tribes, and that the left-leaning Ivy League professionalism he inhabited was one of them, with its own characteristic inanities. That wasn’t the end of the story for Cowan, but rather a new, richer beginning.

Now, more than three years after Perlstein’s piece appeared, Tribes is back in print, from The New Press, with an introduction by Rick. You can read how that happened here. And you can read Rick’s essay here.

“Second Read” is one of the most popular features in the magazine, at least among writers, and since Perlstein’s debut essay we have published “Second Reads” from the likes of Ted Conover, Russell Working, Robert Lipsyte, Jack Shafer, Marla Cone, Ben Yagoda, and many others. Part of the appeal is simply that it’s a great idea—every writer has a book, and probably more than one, that he or she loves because it shaped their thinking about journalism. But part of the appeal, we think, also flows from the degree to which Rick nailed the spirit of the thing in that first piece.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.