The New Leader’s Remembrance of George Brockway

The New Leader. 84.6 (November-December 2001): p2.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY, who initiated the NL column called “The Dismal Science” and presided over it for almost two decades, died on October 5. He was 85 years old.George P Brockway

An imposing figure, Brockway tended to dress conservatively, although you could detect a bit of whimsy in his bow ties, soon confirmed by a quiet sense of humor. His voice was unexpectedly soft, but you also quickly recognized that he knew where he was coming from and where he wanted to go.

Brockway was born and brought up in Portland, Maine; his parents were rock-ribbed New England Republicans. During one of our periodic lunches with him, we wondered how a reputedly tough bargainer who had built one of the country’s major independent publishing houses came to have an unabashedly strong liberal commitment. While a student at Exeter, he explained, he was asked by the school magazine to take the Herbert Hoover side in an exchange on the 1932 Presidential election. Given his family’s politics, he eagerly accepted the assignment. “But after reading what I had written,” he said, “I realized I didn’t believe a damn word of it.”

At Williams College Brockway majored in English and was editor of the literary magazine. The teacher he felt had the greatest influence on his thinking, though, was a philosopher of history, John William Miller, who focused on the interrelation of man and nature. Since a sheepskin and a Phi Beta Kappa key did not automatically open the door to a job in 1936, Brockway spent a year at Yale on a graduate fellowship before joining McGraw-Hill as a trade book salesman.

In 1941 he signed on as William Warder[1] Norton’s assistant at the prestigious, growing W.W. Norton and Company. Besides selling books, in relatively short order he was editing prominent writers, developing the Norton Anthology series, and shrewdly buying up the backlists of other firms. By 1958 he was named president, and in 1976 he became chairman of the now wholly employee-owned company, structured to resist the advances of corporate raiders.

What Brockway did not anticipate was Reaganomics, whose highflying inflation and 21 per cent loan rates threatened Norton’s collapse. Despite discovering that he didn’t really have a friend at Chase Manhattan, he somehow managed to overcome the crisis. Then, on the train home one night, he decided he didn’t want to do what he was doing anymore and would retire at the end of 1983, at age 66. But first he set about carving out a second career. Thus the query we received from him asking if we would consider a regular column “on what used to be called political economy.” Familiar with his writing from several pieces he had done for us over the years, and pleased with two sample columns he submitted, we said yes.

“The Dismal Science” began its 20-year run in the NL of January 11, 1982. Brockway’s relaxed conversational style, and his daring to insist, for example, that an economic recovery with 6 or 8 or 10 per cent unemployment is not a recovery, instantly won him an appreciative audience. Even those infuriated by his central thesis–that “economics is a branch of ethics, not of natural science”–could not resist reading him. In these pages, of course, that will no longer be possible. But we would note that a thoroughly revised, handsome fourth edition of his second book, The End of Economic Man, has recently been issued. His two other books on the subject, Economists Can Be Bad for Your Health and Economics: What Went Wrong and Why and Some Things to Do About It, are also available.

We will miss his demystifying wisdom and his collaboration, but most of all we will miss George Pond Brockway’s friendship.

 

[1] Ed.:  In error The New Leader wrote “Walter Norton’s assistant.”  The name was William Warder Norton, or W.W. Norton

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