Summers, 42, is tall and soft-spoken, with a sharp mind and a solemn academic countenance. He comes across as an extraordinarily sincere person: angry but never cynical, disdainful but never sarcastic. Occasionally, his sentences require footnotes. He will laugh at himself, at the circumstances that brought him here, and at the happy thought that somebody might become very annoyed by something he published. But about his ideas he is quite serious. He carries himself with the quiet intensity of a man who, now that he knows people are listening to him, wants to make sure he has something to say.
Summers would have made a great professor, if academia would have had him. He earned a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Rochester in 2006, writing his dissertation on C. Wright Mills, the sociologist best known for his book The Power Elite, a taxonomy and critique of the “overlapping cliques” that ruled American life. Both before and after he got his degree, Summers spent years as a poorly paid adjunct instructor and visiting scholar at various prominent universities, teaching classes, writing essays, swallowing the unpalatable in hopes that it would lead to a tenure-track position. It did not. “At a certain point, I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m not getting a job anyway, so why should I suppress myself?’ ”
In 2008, after a multi-year stint as a tutor and then lecturer at Harvard, Summers wrote a kiss-off essay for the Times Literary Supplement criticizing his former students at Harvard as entitled plutocrats-in-waiting:
Most of the students I encountered had already embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated, and they seemed to have done so with appalling ease. In keeping with the tradition of the American rich they worked exceptionally long hours, they were aggressive in exercising their talents, and on the ideological features of market capitalism they were unanimous. Their written work disclosed the core components of the consensus upheld by their liberal parents: the meaning of liberty lies in the personal choice of consumers; free competition in goods and morals regulates value; technological progress is an unmixed good; war is unfortunate.
The Baffler was founded to challenge that same placid white-collar consensus, and so it is unsurprising that the magazine and Summers would enter the same orbit. While studying at Rochester, Summers made the acquaintance of Chris Lehmann, a journalist and Rochester alumnus who was well-connected in the small-magazine world. “I wrote something for him once,” he says. “It was about civility. I was against it.” In 2011, when Thomas Frank was looking for someone to take over The Baffler, Lehmann suggested Summers, who had been planning to found a literary magazine of his own. Though he had little editorial experience and less money, it didn’t take him long to sign on. “If we do this, are we likely to think we’ve wasted our time?” Summers remembers thinking. “Probably not. Even if we haven’t changed the world.”
Though The Baffler originated in Chicago, it is now edited and published in Cambridge, MA, where Summers lives with his wife and two children in an apartment in the Inman Square neighborhood; their second child was born when his first issue was in production. His wife, Anna Summers, is well known for her work translating Russian-language short stories into English. She now serves as the magazine’s literary editor.
But the magazine is a family affair in more ways than one. “I got chewed out in New York by a former Baffler contributor who accused me of being un-Baffler,” he remembered. He is very aware that he has assumed control of a cult magazine. “What happens is you put your ass on the line. My ass is on the firing line,” said Summers last year, when the success of the venture was by no means assured. “But I can take it, I think. What else is there to do during a great depression?
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Summers uses the word “interstitial” to describe where he fits into American intellectual life. “The interstitial life—the life lived in between institutions—is what many of us have been living,” he said in an email. “It does not mean we come from nowhere (that’s the conceit of the overclass, as if their perspective is the only one) but rather that we are partially known in lots of different places.”