Fordham University’s Department of Communication and Media studies awarded its 10th Ann M. Sperber Prize for biography on Nov. 16 to a book about the 20th-century iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone.
American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), by D.D. Guttenplan, became the second book on the foremost 20th century investigative journalist to receive the Sperber award, which annually recognizes a biography or autobiography of a journalist or other media figure.
“Herman Melville said that to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” said Robin Andersen, Ph.D., professor of communication and the night’s emcee. “I can think of no mightier figure than I.F. Stone.”
“The book we celebrate today is about 20th century U.S. history, 20th century journalism, and more particularly and spectacularly, about the American left and its decades of dissent,” said David Nasaw, Ph.D., Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Chair in American History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, a former Sperber Prize winner and member of the judging committee. “For me as a U.S. historian, the greatest virtue is that it is a history of an era we thought we knew, but clearly did not.”
The son of a dry goods store merchant, Stone grew up with a taste for radical politics and muckraking journalism. He worked for newspapers through the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the World and Korean Wars, and the McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted in 1952. In 1953, he started self-publishingI.F. Stone’s Weekly, and by the mid-sixties it had established itself as a firm voice against the Vietnam War.
Guttenplan said that he fell into writing the biography quite unexpectedly when, as a Newsdayreporter, he asked to write a piece about Stone’s death in 1989. Shortly after it appeared, Guttenplan received a call from a literary agent who represented Stone’s estate.
During the 18 years that Guttenplan worked on the biography, he said he felt compelled to tell not just the story of a controversial figure, but also the shaping of the 20th century in America over the course of Stone’s life.
“If you read the press now, you get the idea that the New Deal was a failure,” said Guttenplan. “That is the dominant idea in American journalism, that it wasted a lot of money.
“I wanted to put together a narrative to make sure people didn’t forget,” he said. “Not just what had happened, but what had been achieved and what remains possible.”
As a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist himself, Guttenplan suggested it was wrong to look at I.F. Stone the journalist and think that he changed the world.
“At best, we can provide cover and fire for other people to change the world,” said Guttenplan. “But we can also keep people from fooling themselves, we can wake them up. I think Stone did a terrific job of waking people up.”
The Sperber award was established in 1999 with a gift from Liselotte Sperber, in memory of her daughter Ann M. Sperber, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize nominated biography of Edward R. Murrow, Murrow: His Life and Times (Fordham University Press, 1998).