James Fallows Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Journalist's Craft: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, the Atlantic Monthly, 12/7/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Jim, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was actually born in Philadelphia. This is a fact I tend to conceal because I like to present myself as a California guy. But I came at a young age to Redlands, California. My parents were part of the great post - World War II migration; they came out from their Philadelphia roots to Redlands, where I grew up and had, basically, an "American Graffiti" upbringing in the fifties and sixties in Southern California.

How did your parents shape your character in this very California setting?

I think that my parents, although highly compatible and still married fifty-odd years into their relationship, are very different. I have a sort of yin-yang theory, of taking some from each of them. My mother is a great traditionalist. She routinely moans about the loss of Whisahicken Inn and other sorts of things from the East Coast that she misses in California. And I have some of her sentimental side. My father, I'm probably more like. He likes doing something different every day, and he very much liked the idea of escaping what he saw as the traps of the past in the East Coast and going out to California, in the most clichéd way -- just being able to start life over and do things new. He took up all sorts of new hobbies in California, from horse-riding to becoming an auxiliary policeman. Now, after his retirement, he's working as a computer programmer. I see some of my own self in him.

In your book More Like Us you draw very much on your early upbringing to come to an understanding of the American character. book cover In the course of that discussion, you describe your father as "the original autodictact. He thought he could learn to do anything if he tried."

I was both describing my father, whom I admire and love, and also trying to make a point about how our nation works. My father's father, I don't believe, went to college. I know that his mother didn't. And so he would have been the first person in his family, along with his older brother, to go to college. They went there as part of the World War II GI Bill. So coming from a fairly modest background in Philadelphia, he was able to become a medical doctor because of the Navy's V-12 program. And they (my father and my uncle) thought anything would be open to them.

I remember when my siblings and I were little kids, we'd be rolled out of bed at 5:30 to watch "Sunrise Semester," because my dad was learning Greek at the time. We had to learn Greek with him. And then we had to learn physics. And we had to learn this or that. He thought that there was no traditional constraint on what he could be or do or learn. In some way, I think, that was part of the American spirit.

I was trying to argue that this contrasted, say, to the sodden Europeans who think, "Well, if it wasn't done this way five centuries ago, why should we dare?" Or the Japanese, among whom I was living then, who had this idea of what was the accepted thing and the non-accepted thing. My father had no idea of the "accepted thing." It was a thing that he wanted to do, and that, I thought, was the American way.

In your book, you're describing what it was like to be under his tutelage. "Because of his rushed wartime education, he had never taken a college course in liberal arts. He decided to remedy that for himself. For a year or two he studied Greek early in the morning. Then Hebrew. And then a systematic empire-by-empire course in ancient history. Then Shakespeare. When I was in the fourth and fifth grades, he made me get up with him and 6:00 a.m. to watch 'Sunrise Semester.'"

You can see I've embellished the story, because I've turned it into 5:30. 6:00 is the more accurate rendition.

This is part of the American way that I think is often ridiculed from the European perspective. You read all these novels from ... even Henry James, who became, in fact, a European. [European novels] sort of make fun of the Americans with their crash courses learning the classics in three months and learning this or that. But I think it is part of the American idea that people "can do." That is the essential difference between the U.S. in general and the rest of the world -- California in particular and the Sun Belt generally, compared to the rest of the U.S. So this seemed to me admirable, even though it had its ludicrous side. For example, I remember very clearly my dad taking us out in a sailboat with a "How to Sail" manual on his knees. We were trying to learn about jibing and coming about from a book while in the middle of a big wind storm, and that was not such a good experiment.

What books did you read as a young person that you think affected you?

I'm sure my worst secret, although shared with many other former teenagers, is dipping into the works of Ayn Rand as a California teenager and thinking, "Yes, this is how it should be. Really, no one else should interfere with me and my ascent through life." But I was put on a forced march through the classics and through a lot of historical biographies, both by teachers and by my dad. The books that probably made the biggest impact on me were, on the one hand, the Landmark series of biographies. This was a very interesting series put out in the fifties and early sixties by Random House of maybe 200-page biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Lawrence 'Yogi' Berra -- you name it. Great figures of our time. And so [I acquired] a sense of how the arc of different peoples' lives affected how they turned out. That was interesting. I remember also reading the H.G. Wells and the Hendryck Van Loon pocket histories of mankind. And they also were interesting, saying, "Here are the big patterns you should see." Learning to think about things in big patterns. And perhaps to a fault, I absorbed that.

And you went to Harvard?

Right.

Tell us about that experience and how it affected what you became.

It was jarring in six or eight or ten different ways. The background was that I went off to college in the fall of 1966. And I had rarely been out of California. I had no conscious experience out of Southern California at that point. And the circumstances of Redlands in those days were almost identical to the movie "American Graffiti." That was life. And when I went to college, number one, it was in Boston which was different in climatic terms from anything I'd been used to. Very different in social terms. I'd never known anybody who went to a prep school, for example. That was where you sent discipline problems. And suddenly, half the class is people from Groton and Exeter and places like this. Redlands' ethnic diversity in my childhood was a Hispanic population, but very few blacks and almost no Jews. And so it was a very different mix there. It was the time of the Vietnam War. I'd gone intending just to become a doctor. Not "just become," but that's what I had in mind. But I became all mixed up, as many people were in those days, by all the political, economic, cultural changes. I ended up getting interested in journalism and making many close friends from that time, but also many memories of upheaval.

You were a business officer at the Crimson, Harvard's newspaper. And your conversion from a medicine wannabe to a journalist came as a result of a fire, right? Is that the story?

Yes. That was the moment along the road to Damascus for me. I had been selling ads for the paper, trying to earn money. I was in the office late one night laying out the advertising dummy, and there was nobody else there because it was exam period. And this was a freezing cold night in Boston. It was like 20 below zero. I'm probably exaggerating that, too, but it was cold.

You were from California.

Yes, so it seemed like that. And I heard the fire bell go off and it turned out the Harvard Economics Department was burning down. And it was pretty cold because the fire trucks, when they tried to put out the fire, the water was freezing as it came out of the hoses. So I thought, "This is interesting." I was interviewing a pathetic figure who was wearing an Indian turban and whose life's work was burning up in the fire, a man named, I think, Subramaynian Swami. He went on to become Finance Minister of India. And I got to write a story for the newspaper. A couple of days later there was a Hell's Angels beating in Cambridge. I got to write about that. And I thought, "This is fun." So I ended up shifting from the business to the editorial side of the paper.

And you then became editor of the Harvard Crimson?

I did become the editor. I guess the fire was half-way through my freshman year. Probably my senior year, I was the editor. It was a very intense time. Frank Rich, who is now a writer for The New York Times, was on the paper then. Mike Kinsley,editor of Slate, was; as was David Ignatius, who is the editor of the International Herald Tribune. Evan Thomas, who's editor at Newsweek. A lot of other very interesting, very intense people. So most of the memories I have of college are of working with those people ten hours a day, trying to put out the next day's paper, which was a great experience.

From Harvard you went on to England as a Rhodes scholar.

Yes, I did.

What did you study there?

I studied economics. I began studying law. For the first year I studied law and I thought, "This is interesting enough," but there was an intriguing difference in how the law is taught in England, which was, in the U.S. you go to law school if you want to become "master of the world." At least that was the case a quarter-century ago, when I was doing this. In England, you go to law school to learn how to draw up contracts. The actual contents may not be that different, but you think there's sort of a higher calling in the United States. In England, there's none of this kind of gloss on law, that you're going to be running the world.

So you were immunized early against wanting to be a lawyer for a lifetime.

Yes. I thought: I can see all these terms of settling an estate. Do I really want to do this? So I shifted to studying economics, which is what English people want to do. That's their version of law school. If they want to be big cheeses, they study economics. So I studied that, which was interesting. The main lesson I took from England was that I was a Yank, that I really belonged back in my homeland. England was fine, but my instincts, my accent, and everything else belonged to America.

Your work on economic theory later became very important to you, right? Because it laid the groundwork for the kinds of things that you really wanted to critique?

Yes.

Theories about how the world worked economically.

I think that any real economist would view that year and a half I spent studying economics at Oxford as a huge mistake, because it's in the "little bit of learning is dangerous" category. But I thought that it was a way to get some of the basic premises of the business.

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