Who are you?
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: I think having grown up in Omaha – specifically Nebraska, the Midwest – has shaped me quite a bit. I think going from Omaha essentially to the east – New York, specifically – made me feel a little bit like a permanent outsider. If not an outsider, at least somebody who could see the strangeness, and magnificence, and ugliness and of New York with a certain amount of awe that hasn’t quite left me.
I think also there is a cliché – but like most clichés a true one – that there’s this thing in the Midwest which amounts to a kind of enforced humility. Sometimes a mock humility, but the nevertheless a sense of you shouldn’t toot your own horn too much. And I think that has stuck with me.
And then of course the particulars of my parents and my family background entirely apart from the Midwest – or Omaha particularly – has had a dramatic influence on my life. I grew up in a household with lots of books just around, and with lots of music being played around.
My parents went to the local community theater. So the sense that there was a culture out there beyond what was on television was extremely important and sort of to the degree I’ve made a life and a culture in _________. Those were important.
In particular my mother; but both of my parents. I don’t want to undersell my father’s influence. But my mother, who was kind of an amateur Willa Cather scholar, and just a voracious reader. Both my parents sort of privileged books and reading very highly. So I was hard wired with that same sense very early on.
Not really a pivotal moment in my child. . . . There were moments that could have gone wrong. I sort of avoided the negative pivotal moments, if you will. But there wasn’t a moment where I suddenly thought, “Aha! I understand. I should be decent and civilized to people.” Or, “I should read.” No. It was a boringly untroubled childhood, so there was no pivotal moment. It was pleasant and without much in the way of epiphany. I had the various kind of random thoughts that children have.
I was told by my parents once that a radiologist was, and that it was just a matter of looking at x-rays. And I thought that sounded good. But I guess I thought I might be a scientist of some sort as a little kid.
I began writing in the school newspaper and things like that when I was in junior high school. And I guess I probably began imagining that I could have a life as a writer. But when I left Omaha for college, I imagined that I would be some kind of academic. It wasn’t until I got to an academic environment until I realized, “I don’t think so.” And indeed the fact that I could write, that my professors and teachers at college thought I wrote well, made me think, “Well then, maybe I could write.”
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
Kurt Andersen talks about growing up in a family that was engaged with culture outside of television.