Brief encounters

Short reviews of After Visiting Friends, The Art of Controversy, and Tupelo Man

After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story | By Michael Hainey | Scribner | 306 pages | $26

Robert C. Hainey was assistant copy desk chief (night slot man) at the Chicago Sun-Times when he died, suddenly, in 1970—“while visiting friends,” said the Chicago Daily News; after he “had just left the home of a friend,” said Chicago Today, where his brother, Richard, was executive editor. His own newspaper merely wrote that he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

His son Michael, six years old when his father died, read the obituaries years later and found them puzzling. In 2003, he decided to investigate—why the obituaries were inconsistent, why he died miles from the newspaper office and far from home.

This is no mere procedural, and Hainey tells the story with persistence and sympathy. He describes the Hainey brothers’ migration from their hometown in Nebraska, their careers on Chicago newspapers, his father’s marriage to a woman who worked at the Chicago Tribune. Most important, he tracks down his father’s old colleagues, scattered about the country. He gets an education in the folkways of Chicago journalism, but most don’t want to tell him much. Indeed, the story does not open up until a kindly nurse with access to old emergency-room records sends him a vital clue.

What he finds cannot be a total surprise—a sad apr├Ęs-shift romance with a 24-year-old colleague, to which death brought a sudden end. Michael Hainey’s uncle, it turned out, supplied a cover story to the police and newspapers. The young woman soon left Chicago for San Francisco and resumed her newspaper career. She never married, and died alone before Michael Hainey could meet her.

The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power | By Victor S. Navasky | Alfred A. Knopf | 256 pages | $27.95

The Art of Controversy makes clear that political cartoons—the best of them, at least—are serious business. They sometimes challenge the boundaries of the guarantees of free speech. They often violate personal, political, or aesthetic standards. They are likely to infuriate their targets.

In an introductory essay, the author (and CJR’s chairman) wonders whether such effects owe primarily to content, to the power of the images, or to what he calls “neuroscience,” a trigger within the viewer. But the real meat is his gallery of examples and discussions of the work of some 30 artists, from William Hogarth to the present. More than a few he has known personally as the editor of the late magazine of satire, Monocle, or later as editor of The Nation—Edward Sorel and Robert Grossman among them—and the book is salted with recollections of working with them.

One work, by the caricaturist David Levine, appears still to trouble Navasky, although it was published nearly 30 years ago: the drawing of Henry Kissinger in the missionary position atop a female world. Twenty-six members of The Nation staff opposed its publication as sexist. Navasky published it, and still reflects today about whether he might have underestimated its power. But, as a free-speech absolutist, he says, he would publish it again.

Tupelo Man: The Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher | By Robert Blad | University Press of Mississippi | 308 pages | $40

George McLean (1904-1983) was an exemplar of what is now a rare breed: the small-town editor who is also an important civic leader. He deserves a biography, and now has one, an intensely detailed portrait by his son-in-law.

The somewhat spoiled son of a Mississippi judge, McLean lived an aimless youth until he encountered what was known as the “Social Gospel,” a progressive Christian doctrine associated with political activism. His pro-labor activities got him fired from a teaching job in Memphis. Casting about, he bought a bankrupt newspaper in Mississippi, the Tupelo Daily Journal, in 1934, and that was to be his life.

Always impatient and short-fused, he pushed the newspaper to profitability, but that was not enough. He was determined to develop Tupelo and the surrounding agricultural region. He created or encouraged innumerable community efforts, ultimately channeling more than a million dollars into an early reading program for the region’s schools. At first slow to respond to Brown v. Board, his newspaper later played a key role in supporting and preserving an integrated public school system in Tupelo.

He married the girl next door, who put up with him for decades (she left him once, briefly) and succeeded him as publisher after his death. Robert Blade, a journalism professor, writes of McLean, his family, and his colleagues with affection and candor, if occasionally with excessive detail. But who can blame him?

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.