by Jeff Sharlet
Head over to Arts & Letters Daily and scroll down the left column to this sad item: links to a couple of dozen obituaries marking the death, on December 28, of A&L founder Denis Dutton. You can find details of Dutton’s wonderfully generous contrarianism there; here, I’ll point to the obvious, which is that The Revealer’s three columns, Today, Timely, and Timeless, are a riff on the format established by A&L in 1998. I was hardly alone in copying A&L; future historians of internet journalism and criticism will surely credit Dutton with tremendous influence. What makes that all the more remarkable is that he shaped the internet not by rushing breathlessly into the future but by emulating the design of an 18th century broadsheet and by clinging to vocation of “public intellectual” even as he opened the doors of his highbrow salon to countless unknowns and troublemakers. I was one of them, and it’s no exaggeration to say I owe something of my career to him. Starting in 1998, when I was a senior writer on the humanities at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dutton began picking up my features with some regularity. That impressed my editors, and encouraged them to encourage me to keep messing with The Chron’s turgid formulas. Dutton provided the cover that allowed me to go from writing dull reports on trends in diplomatic history to stories about the fringes of academe, portraits of “gypsy scholars” and meditations on the utopianism of scholarly books that can never be completed. I never communicated with Dutton, but I suspect I fell into his favor because of a feature I wrote on the resurgence of Ayn Rand in the academy; Dutton was no “Randroid,” as the objectivist’s disciples are known, but his contrarianism led him into a sympathy for libertarianism with a conservative tinge. Maybe that’s why Dutton kept featuring my work and that of the writers Peter Manseau and I gathered on KillingTheBuddha.com: Perhaps he read our fascination with religion, for which he apparently had little personal use, as a rebellion against liberal sanctimony, for which he had even less use. Whatever the case, Dutton helped make our obscure site slightly less obscure, and his notices drew the attention of other media, which led to my first book deal. But by then, my lefty sympathies were more evident; as I began writing for publications such as Harper’s and Rolling Stone — and, yes, The Revealer – I found myself mostly ignored by A&L. That didn’t mean I could ignore A&L in turn; it remained, and remains, one of my very favorite websites. Thanks, Denis Dutton.