East Boston-born public intellectual and Harvard alum George Scialabba, at age 67, is doing what few others would when retiring after 25 years spent in the daily grind of being scheduling assistant for Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies: He’s becoming a full-time freelance writer.
Of course, to anyone familiar with Scialabba’s journalism, this is far less perilous a career move than your average retiree deciding to blog about lawncare maintenance in the winter of their professional life. He’s the author of several collections of political and literary criticism, for which he received the first Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing (one of the most prestigious awards for book criticism in the country), and a contributing editor for the Baffler; it’s safe to say Scialabba is going to hit the ground running.
The Baffler is throwing their man in the stands quite the retirement party this week, on the night the Cambridge City Council is proclaiming Sept 10 George Scialabba Day, and will feature friends and speakers from the intelligentsia (Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank), a tribute film, and live music. I spoke with Baffler editor John Summers about the party-to-be, and why it’s so important to have a unique and independent voice like Scialabba’s pumping full-time during what Summers calls “the age of Trumpism.”
Was there a galvanizing moment that lead to George’s decision to retire? Also, what is his role going to be with the Baffler? Same?
I think the balance of trade between his pension and his age came to an agreement, and the moment presented itself on his ledger. But you can be sure that we’ve already taken this opportunity to chain George to a basement desk in our new Harvard Square headquarters, where we have given him a quota—or else. He’s having his day in the sun on Thursday, but then it’s back to the dark for him. Write, dammit!
What were the reactions of Chomsky, Ehrenreich, Frank, etc, when you approached them to be involved?
All along the lines of, “HELL YES.” Noam’s involvement in particular gives the idea a certain beauty. It was because of Noam that George began his freelance writing career. And now, after all these years, to see these two stalwarts on stage together, amid the ring of tenured pipsqueaks—well, it’s encouraging, at least. Finally, some culture in Harvard Square.
Personal favorites from Scialabba’s canon. Go.
“The Endlessly Examined Life: A Most Chronic Depression”—in which George publishes a selection of his mental health records, and takes an unprecedented approach to creating empathy for his fellow depressed. Also, “The Assassin’s Fate”—in which George takes New Republic writer Paul Berman satisfyingly to school in assessing the legacy of radical journalist Alexander Cockburn.
Talk about his range for a moment, both as a reader and an editor of his work.
He writes about science and politics, morality and literature, and everything in between, including himself. He’s a generalist. Nothing is off-limits except what his modesty or conscience forbids. As a contributing editor, he can be relied on even to read fiction, but claims to have no ear for poetry or eye for illustration.
How do you define “the age of Trumpism”?
Everything George is not: immodest, racist, stupefying.
If there is some poor soul out there still virginal in their knowledge of who Scialabba is, what’s the first piece they should read?
Open any page of What Are Intellectuals Good For? or The Modern Predicament and start reading, because he’s writing for you—not for the experts. If you go three paragraphs without understanding or appreciating anything, don’t give up. Once you realize that he’s not selling you a system, but offering you gifts, your mind can fall open and warm to them.
George Scialabba Day—how did that come about?
Obviously, the idea arose spontaneously during a meeting of the Cambridge City Council, since all the members thereof keep copies of George’s books under their feather pillows. Actually, I discovered they trade such official resolutions like chits and vote on them in bulk, not having read them. (One councilman is reputed to scan the obits for surviving family to whom he can offer to resolve something or another—networking!). I’m sorry to break it to you, but they are just that corruptible. But what the hell. Next year we’re going for a whole street. “The Baffler Way.”
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