A Woman of The Nation By Sara Alpern

Harvard University Press. 319 pp. $27.50

SARA ALPERN'S biography of Freda Kirchwey is both a portrait of a crusading feminist and an intellectual history of an editor who saw The Nation through several critical decades, including the sexual revolution of the '20s, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the birth of the atomic age. In this painstaking reconstruction of Kirchwey's life, Alpern attempts to reveal the fractious evolution of the feminist and left-liberal ideals of the first half of the 20th century.

Kirchwey joined The Nation in 1918 and stayed for 37 years, working her way through the editorial department as managing editor, literary editor and finally, in 1947, as owner, editor and publisher. She ran The Nation at a time when leftists and liberals were bitterly divided, particularly over the issue of Soviet communism. Alpern, who is concerned less with analysis than with exposition, refrains from taking sides in the intramural political battles, and avoids titillating revelations about Kirchwey's personal life. Unfortunately, her account of the intricate positioning of Cold War intellectuals, though refreshingly non-polemical, is little more than a familiar summary. And her portrait of Kirchwey, which is brisk and unsentimental, is also somewhat shallow.

Kirchwey was plagued by bouts of ill health and several tragedies. Two of her three sons died in early childhood, and her marriage barely survived her relentless work schedule and her husband's (and her own) experiments in free love. She retreated from her difficulties into a fanatical commitment to the magazine. Never fully at ease in her role as wife and mother, she didn't waver in her resolve to pursue The Nation's mission as a "propaganda journal" devoted to "fighting with words" for a new democracy purged of capitalistic decadence and the threat of fascist domination.

Alpern writes approvingly of Kirchwey's "resistance to dogma" and her determined advocacy of numerous causes. Indeed, as editor of The Nation, Kirchwey aired opposing points of view in articles and dinner forums on everything from the feasibility of monogamy to the problem of atomic power. She herself wrote often with intelligence and passion. She vigorously supported the enfranchisement of women, the legalization of birth control and protective legislation. She came down against the ERA and the National Woman's Party's separatist strategy, presciently arguing that "women are going to vote according to the dictates of class interest and personal interest as well as sex interest."

SHE WAS ALSO a fierce advocate of Zionism. In the late '30s and early '40s, when most of the Western press refused to recognize the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, Kirchwey and others at The Nation (and The New Republic) repeatedly forced readers to recognize the truth. In 1946 she wrote angrily of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's refusal to allow 100,000 Jewish European refugees to enter Palestine, and over the years she relentlessly pressed for the establishment of an independent state.

Yet the central question lurking behind this biography is: what explains Kirchwey's decades-long defense of the Soviet Union? By 1918 she was an ardent believer in the Bolshevik revolution and, unlike many progressives, she maintained a tenacious, if qualified, faith throughout Stalin's purges, the Moscow Trials, even the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Cold War. Alpern does mildly point out that "Kirchwey's belief that the Soviet Union was the leader of the anti-fascist forces . . . affected her judgment," but never satisfactorily explains this lapse. Kirchwey wrote denouncing the Bukharin trials, "One can hear the cracking of liberal hopes; of the dream of anti-fascist unity; of a whole system of revolutionary philosophy . . ." but privately expressed an undaunted belief in Russia's willingness to work with the West to defeat Hitler and Mussolini: "Russia is still the strongest reason for hope."

Kirchwey certainly had many occasions to modify her views. In the late '30s many liberal anti-communists and disillusioned communists turned on The Nation, accusing it of fellow-traveling, and arguing that there was no difference between Hitler and Stalin. In the '40s the split became more evident than ever in the pages of The Nation. The front section continued to espouse the virtues of the Soviet Union: "Russia, with all its differences of policy and system, is 'on our side,' " Kirchwey wrote in June 1945. The back section, meanwhile, under the literary editorship of Margaret Marshall and with Kirchwey's acquiescence, was taking a strikingly anti-Stalinist line. In response to a letter questioning the magazine's dual identity, Kirchwey wrote, "I think the Nation is the place to thrash out the whole situation confronting liberals today."

But the antagonism came to a head in 1951, when Clement Greenberg, The Nation's former art critic, wrote a letter to the editor charging that the views of the foreign editor, Julio Alvarez del Vayo, were indistinguishable from those of the Stalin regime. Kirchwey, who greatly respected Del Vayo, was enraged, and, contrary to her practice, refused to publish the letter. When The New Leader printed it, Kirchwey launched a libel suit, which further alienated many of her former allies.

Alpern's discussion of the peculiarly incompatible front and back sections of The Nation and of the Greenberg affair does little to explain Kirchwey's judgment as an editor. In 1954 she suddenly fired Margaret Marshall, citing the magazine's dire financial condition. Alpern says that many (including Marshall) charged that it was an obviously political move designed to rid the magazine of its anti-communist influence. But she does not take the opportunity to explore the magazine's internal dynamics or Kirchwey's underlying rationalizations. How, for example, did Kirchwey reconcile her intention to use The Nation to "thrash out" the liberal debate with her decision to remove the editor responsible for carrying out that debate in the pages of the magazine?

One thing is clear: the firing purposefully confirmed Kirchwey's break with the anti-communist liberals. Richard Hofstadter announced that he wouldn't "write for the Nation under the new dispensation -- ever." Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe and other Nation contributors found Kirchwey's double standards on Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and Franco's assault on Spain's Republicans wilfully naive. Reinhold Niebuhr finally severed his ties with the magazine. In The Vital Center (1949), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described The Nation and The New Republic as journals of "the fellow traveler or the fellow traveler of the fellow traveler," and singled out "the pious genuflections by Miss Kirchwey" toward the Soviets.

In Alpern's lucid but impassive rendition of one of the most tumultuous periods in United States political history the major personalities and views -- not least Kirchwey herself -- remain curiously unengaging. Doubtless she was enigmatic in many ways, but the questions that remain unanswered are critical ones. Kirchwey believed that the The Nation's purpose was "to be analytical and critical and free to present varying views without any inhibitions resulting from partisan control or even rigid ideological limits." It is a mystery why she eventually abandoned that goal, driving away colleagues and badly damaging The Nation's reputation and financial health.

Dorothy Wickenden is the managing editor of The New Republic.