Notes & Comments June 2004
Melvin J. Lasky, 1920-2004
It is with sadness that we report the passing of Melvin J. Lasky, prolific author, ardent anti-Communist, indefatigable and much beloved editor. A native New Yorker, Mel was graduated from City College in New York in the same class as Irving Kristol and Seymour Martin Lipset. He was posted to Berlin in World War II, and it was there that he made his early career, starting the magazine Der Monat (The Month) soon after the war ended.
Der Monat was one of several magazines funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization created by more than one hundred European and American intellectuals in 1950 to wage war—a war of ideas—against Stalinism and totalitarian ideology. The Congress was a liberal organization, but one uncorrupted by the virus of Communist fellow-traveling. Mel had a distinguished career in Berlin editing Der Monat, but he really came into his own when he moved to London in the late Fifties to take over the co-editorship (with Stephen Spender) of the monthly magazine Encounter, another initiative of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Mel’s predecessor had been Irving Kristol, who made Encounter one of the most influential cultural reviews in English. Mel extended and built upon the foundation laid down by Kristol. The magazine’s roster of contributors is an intellectual and literary Who’s Who of extraordinary breadth and distinction. A partial list includes Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Arthur Koestler, and W. H. Auden. As Ferdinand Mount, the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, noted, Encounter was amazingly catholic, open to just about every sort of writer with the exception of “Soviet hacks.”
Mel did not suffer from writer’s block. While editing Encounter he managed to write a shelf full of historical-political works, including The Hungarian Revolution (1957), a travel book called Africa for Beginners (1963), and his magnum opus, Utopia and Revolution (1977). Writing about Mel in 1985, Sidney Hook noted his “extraordinary intellectual and moral courage. I refer,” Hook wrote,
not merely to the kind of courage expressed in an article or esoteric writing that will bring down on him the wrath of other writers or scholars or the hired literary guns of the Kremlin and its satellites, but to the courage displayed in a public confrontation with a hostile crowd.
Mel had ample opportunity to display that courage in 1967 when it was revealed that a large part of the funding for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and hence for Encounter, came from the CIA. The revelation could not have come at a worse moment. Anti-establishment and anti-American sentiment were boiling over across Europe and America (plus ça change …). The fact that Encounter, far from being conservative, was an audaciously liberal, albeit anti-totalitarian, organ mattered not a whit. Overnight, readers and authors fled from the magazine. Mel’s efforts to salvage and reconstitute Encounter over the next decade or so were indeed courageous. Although the magazine never quite regained its cachet, it did retain its wide-ranging intellectual verve. Encounter had struggled financially for many years. Finally, in 1991, it closed. It was the end of an era. Nothing even remotely approaching Encounter’s intellectual seriousness and range has appeared in England to take its place.
Anyone who got to know Mel Lasky would soon be the recipient of his consummately illegible notes, enthusiastic jewels of criticism, exhortation, and commendation hurriedly scribbled on Encounter notepaper. No one we know ever managed to decipher any of these gnomic communications completely, but, like us, many will be saddened to realize that no more such missives are forthcoming.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 10, on page 2
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