Burton Rascoe was an early 20th century American literary critic, journalist, editor, and author. He was born Arthur Burton Rascoe in Fulton, Kentucky on October 22, 1892, the son of Matthew Lafayette and Elizabeth (Burton) Rascoe. Along with his brothers Henry and George, Rascoe grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where his literary proclivities manifested early on as a reporter for the Shawnee Herald at the age of fourteen. In 1911, he left to attend the University of Chicago, where he quickly secured the position of campus correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. After two years of study, Rascoe left the University of Chicago to work for the Tribune full-time as assistant city editor and special assignment reporter. During his tenure there, Rascoe worked "for the recognition of contemporary American writers--Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Henry Blake Fuller, H.L. Mencken, James Branch Cabell, and many others--he made controversy his business. He attacked these writers' enemies, exhorted his readers to read their works, and even--when he could get away with it--printed their work for pay," (Hensley, page 24). He also contributed articles to the Bookman, Dial, the English Journal, the Freeman, New Republic, Smart Set, and the Wave. As a critic in Chicago, he "conducted sizzling rows with his critical contemporaries on the other journals, suavely insulted the most popular writers of the day so that they wrote furious replies, which he printed with delight, and generally pepped up the culture of the community ... in short, he raised a great deal of hell in Chicago and his influence is still felt" (Starret, page 6). In 1920, after having become literary and drama editor, Rascoe was dismissed from the Tribune because "they got fed up with the independence of [his] opinions and point of view," (Rascoe, document fragment, box 16, folder 21).
In 1920, Rascoe and his family (wife, Hazel, and children, Arthur Burton and Ruth Helen) moved to New York where Rascoe took a job at McCall's as associate editor. Only a year later, Rascoe became the editor of the New York Tribune, where he ran his popular "A Bookman’s Day Book" series, diary-like articles relating to the literary goings-on of the day. In 1924, the Tribune acquired the New York Herald to become the New York Herald-Tribune and Rascoe was laid off.
He continued to write "A Bookman's Daybook" which appeared in more than 400 newspapers across the county and wrote a weekly column called "The Book of the Week," as well as contributing to a wide variety of publications including Arts and Decorations, the D.A.C. News and Vanity Fair, to name only a few. He worked as editor of The Bookman from 1927 to 1928, as a member of the editorial board of the Literary Guild of America from 1928 to 1937, and as editor of Plain Talk from 1929 to 1930. The 1930s saw Rascoe become editor for Esquire from 1932 to 1938, one of his longer tenures after his time at the Chicago Tribune; editorial advisor at Doubleday, Doran & Co. from 1934 to 1937; literary critic for Newsweek from 1938 to 1939; and critic at American Mercury (starting in 1938).
In addition to writing for newspapers and journals, Rascoe also authored several books including Theodore Dreiser in 1925, A Bookman’s Daybook in 1929, Titans of Literature in 1932, Prometheans in 1933, the Joys of Reading in 1937, and Belle Starr: 'The Bandit Queen' in 1941. He also authored two autobiographical works Before I Forget in 1937 (which resulted in a libel suit initiated by Max Annenberg, a circulation man for William Randolph Hearst, over comments by Rascoe regarding Annenberg's corruption in Chicago) and We Were Interrupted in 1947.
During the 1950s, Rascoe continued to write for various newspapers, but was best known for his syndicated column "TV First-Nighter." Throughout his career, Rascoe was unfailingly honest and forthright in his opinions and beliefs relating to the quality of literature as well as current events and politics. According to Hensley, Rascoe
exposed much of the artificiality of the literature and fought for a distinctive American literature and language: he fought against the "genteel" tradition, academicism and pedantry, the literary humanists, censorship, and the control of American literature by foreign literature and writers. He played a useful role in contributing to the public acceptance of H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, T.S Eliot, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, James Branch Cabell, Edmund Wilson, and many others; and he was important as a publicizer of their work. He provided significant personal and professional help to many young writers; and as an editor, he inspired them to do their best work, provided opportunities for them, and helped establish their reputations. In his efforts to democratize American literature and culture, he did some of the important early work in helping to broaden, to enlarge, and to raise America's culture standards and literary level.
From a political standpoint, Rascoe "fought Communists; he fought anti-anti-Communists; and not long before the end he defied the wrath of the Establishment by citing chapter and verse to prove that Senator Joe McCarthy had gentlemanly qualities," (obituary in National Review).
Rascoe married Hazel Luke (1891-1971) on July 5, 1913 and they were the parents of Arthur Burton Rascoe (1914-1936) and Ruth Helen Rascoe (1918-1968). According to Vincent Starret Rascoe had "opinions on everything--opinions precocious, brash, profane, individual, usually intelligent," and was "cordially disliked by many persons, and completely loved by many others,". He died of heart failure on March 19, 1957, having "produced a prodigious amount of first-rate journalism; [and written] influential books of criticism, autobiography and history," (obituary in National Review).