A Voice From Below

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Hoosiers should know the name John Bartlow Martin. But it’s a safe bet that many don’t.

Martin (1915-1987) was arguably the top American magazine journalist of his day. He also was an adviser and/or speechwriter to every Democratic presidential candidate from Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern, was ambassador to the Dominican Republic during its short-lived first attempt at democracy,and was author of a provocative history book titled Indiana: An Interpretation.

Ray Boomhower holds the post of senior editor at Indiana Historical Society Press. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RAY BOOMHOWER
  • Photo courtesy of Ray Boomhower
  • Ray Boomhower holds the post of senior editor at Indiana Historical Society Press.

So why doesn’t this notable Hoosier bear a household name, right up there with Ernie Pyle’s?

“Ernie commanded a level of respect because of his wartime experiences –- and because he died in the war,” Ray Boomhower says. “But as a reporter, I don’t think anyone from Indiana was on the same level as Martin was.”

His high level was occupied, most notably, on behalf of people on the low levels, as the title of Boomhower’s new book –- John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog –- alerts us.

Due out this week from Indiana University Press, the book extends an impressive string of biographies of Indiana-connected figures by Boomhower, senior editor at Indiana Historical Society Press. The author’s interest was piqued in part by Martin’s work with Robert F. Kennedy’s tragic 1968 primary run, also the subject of a Boomhower book.

Like Pyle and like RFK, the hardworking product of a Depression-era Indianapolis childhood was a friend of the common man and woman who took pains and risks to prove it.

“He wrote about the outcasts of our society,” Boomhower says. “He showed the problems in a democratic society, that the system we have set up is not working as well as it should and solutions need to be found. I was surprised the Saturday Evening Post, which I would consider a very conservative Republican publication that would favor a rosy picture of society, let him do just about whatever he wished to do. He wrote about abortion before you could openly mention that word. He wrote about insanity, about prisons, about racial segregation.”

And perhaps most significantly of all, he wrote about the Centralia, Illinois, coal mine disaster of 1947, which claimed 111 lives and which Martin, through Herculean legwork and with Spartan courage in the face of death threats, exposed as the product of corruption and negligence in boardrooms and halls of government.

In his day, Hoosier journalist John Bartlow Martin wrote about the outcasts of our society. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY
  • Photo Courtesy of Northwestern University
  • In his day, Hoosier journalist John Bartlow Martin wrote about the outcasts of our society.

“Those from below,” as Martin described his favorite subjects, clearly inspired Indiana: An Interpretation, his 1948 history that one reviewer called a “shock treatment” for a state’s complacency about its virtue and progress. It’s no shock that the most scintillating chapter is the one about Eugene Debs, the “Gentleman Socialist” who may be Indiana’s all-time champion of the underdog.

“I’m so impressed with how Indiana: An Interpretation stands up over time,” Boomhower says. “It’s not myth-making history. It’s not ‘Ain’t God good to Indiana.’ It is Indiana with eyes wide open.”

Needless to say, it was received with many a jaundiced eye in its day and is not on the preferred reading list for current Hoosier political leadership. Yet it is noteworthy that Martin himself, for all his fixation on systemic injustice, was welcomed into service by the (granted, liberal) establishment and got along well with large personalities in the Democratic party who did not necessarily cotton to one another. Adlai and Bobby, for example. When his tireless typewriter wasn’t cranking out their speeches, it was aiding Juan Bosch’s failed effort to sustain Dominican democracy after Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship and building Newton Minow’s historic stature as head of the Federal Communications Commission. The iconic j’accuse Minow flung at television -- “vast wasteland” -- is Martin’s creation.

There are those, myself included, who would harbor reservations as to a journalist’s joining the history-makers he covers. But at least he was good at it. Boomhower quotes John Kenneth Galbraith as declaring of Martin: “No one then, and I think none since, could make a point more succinctly, support it more sharply with evidence and then, of all things, stop.”

Martin himself said that his role switch to “looking from inside” made him realize no outsider -- no journalist -- could really know the political world.

All in all, not a feel-good guy. Pyle, of course, wasn’t either; but he’s had the good or ill fortune to be characterized as such, surely a factor in his immortality. I commend him for giving John Bartlow Martin the long-overdue valediction that makes room on Ernie’s pedestal. The crusader who so loathed putting himself in a story can be the subject of one final injustice set right.

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