Eric Utne, Minnesota native and visionary founder of the Utne Reader, didn’t intend to write a memoir but that’s what happened. “Far Out Man: Tales of Life in the Counterculture” (Random House, $28), tells Utne’s personal story, forever intertwined with the magazine he says “captured the zeitgeist for a lot of people,” after it was founded in 1984. (Zeigeist in German means “the spirit of the times.”)
Utne and his life partner, Jeri Maeve Reilly, are moving from St. Paul to a new home two miles outside Taylors Falls, not far from the St. Croix River that Utne has loved since he was a boy. They were still surrounded by boxes when he took time to talk about “Far Out Man,” the title of which is a play on words.
Utne’s name is derived from his ancestral Norwegian village of Utne, which loosely translates as “far out.” But the title also harkens to the hippie culture of which Utne was a part in the 1960s, when “far out” was an exclamation that could mean anything.
Back to the unfortunate manuscript. “I thought I was growing older and I talked about being an older baby boomer,” Utne, 74, recalls of the book that was shopped to 25 publishers, all of whom rejected it. But 19 editors said, at some point, “Eric sure has a great platform.”
“I asked myself what I could do with that feedback from the publishers,” Utne says. “I threw together some chapters and it sold right away. Suddenly there was this memoir I had to write. I asked myself what I’d gotten myself into.” (His son said the book’s subtitle should be “Just a bunch of stories I probably shouldn’t be repeating in public, anyway.”)
“Far Out Man” traces Utne’s life from growing up in Roseville in the late 1940s and ’50s, through getting kicked out of Gustavus Adolphus College for participating in an act of protest that turned into vandalism, dropping out of architecture school at the University of Minnesota, and traveling to explore the countercutlure. He talks about his marriages, children and publications.
Utne was in Boston when he met his first wife, Peggy Taylor, with whom he had a son. With $3,000, the couple founded The New Age Journal, but the strains of a business partnership ended their marriage and they divorced in 1981. The publication, which was left in Taylor’s hands, was purchased in 2004 by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
BEST OF THE ALTERNATIVE PRESS
In 1979, Utne married Nina Rothschild. They had three sons and gave birth to Utne Reader, which began as a 12-page newsletter that summarized articles in other publications. Their two-room office above the food co-op in Minneapolis’s Linden Hills neighborhood was so small one editor worked in a closet. If someone was going to flush the toilet they had to alert their colleagues who were on the phone. (They eventually moved to more upscale digs near Loring Park.)
Utne Reader was filled with perspectives percolating on the edges of the arts, culture, politics, business and spirituality. Circulation grew from 27,000 in 1984 to nearly 300,000 in 1990.
The magazine anticipated dozens of mainstream and counter-cultural phenomena — the 1987 stock market crash, the mythopoetic men’s movement, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, media concentration, pressures on the family farm, online dating, community building and cyber-spying by the government.
Before long, Utne Reader was so well known it popped into popular culture with references on “The Simpsons” (Lisa had a subscription), and “Family Guy,” where the martini-drinking dog is reading a copy. TV host Jon Stewart quoted from it. And Eric Utne’s name has been used in the New York Times crossword puzzle more than 50 times.
A successful offshoot of Utne Reader in the ’90s was Neighborhood Salon Association, which the magazine promoted to revive the art of conversation. More than 18,000 people joined, comprising nearly 500 salons across North America.
Utne himself became a media go-to guest, asked to speak on everything from journalism to entrepreneurship.
“I didn’t think of myself as a journalist,” recalled Utne, a self-proclaimed magazine junkie. “I studied architecture and Chinese medicine. I realized that I couldn’t keep up with all the magazines I wanted to read. I thought others like me wanted the best of them. I was always sending magazine articles to family and friends, but I knew they weren’t reading them.”
Utne was publisher and editor of the magazine and its success surprised him.
“It was amazing,” he recalls. “When I started the magazine, I thought I would edit it on the kitchen table forever. Within five years it was the fastest-growing magazine in America. It was an idea whose time had come. We were more witness to the phenomenon of the magazine than the cause. It was the right thing at the right time.”
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Utne’s explanation of why Minnesota was a perfect place to publish a wide-ranging magazine. The short answer is that he and Nina visited the state when lilacs were in bloom and she was enchanted. They never left.
“So … what is it about Minnesotans?” he writes. “Unlike New Yorkers, and Washingtonians and Los Angelenos and San Franciscans, Minnesotans know they’re not living in the center of the universe. They’e out there on the margins, on the edge of the great prairie, or deep in the North Woods. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, their outsider status gives them a unique perspective, perhaps even a special insight. They become media-savvy sophisticates, keeping track of what’s happening all over the world. They stay on top of what’s going on in the arts, politics, fashion — just about any cultural realm you can think of — as well as or better than anyone else. Minnesotans are prairie polymaths.”
Utne stepped away from Utne Reader in 1999, leaving the magazine in the hands of Rothschild. After they divorced in 2007, Utne taught for two years at City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis. In 2011 he edited and published “Brenda My Darling,” made up of love letters to his step-grandmother, Brenda Ueland, from Fridtjof Nansen, one of Norway’s most famous heroes.
After launching the Norwegian edition, Utne got a message from a stranger named Jeri Maeve Reilly, wanting to know how she could get an English-language version, which wasn’t out yet.
“I looked her up online and saw that she was a writer and editor,” Utne writes of Reilly. “The photo on her website revealed that she was beautiful. I wrote her back and invited her to coffee.”
MANHATTANS WITH BRENDA, BROWN RICE WITH KUSHI, MONEY WITH SCHWARTZ
Ask Utne about the main influences on his life and he names three mentors — Brenda Ueland, Michio Kushi and Robert Schwartz.
His step-grandmother Ueland is author of “If You Want to Write,” a guide published by Graywolf Press that has sold thousands of copies and is cherished by many writers.
“Brenda’s influence on me was huge. She taught me more about being a man than my male mentors, because she was all about courage,” Utne says. “She saw herself in shining armor, wielding a sword. She was constantly challenging me to be my higher self. Be brave, be noble. She would say, ‘When you are alive, be alive.’ ”
He often turned to Ueland, who was more than 55 years his senior, when he was wondering about where his life should go. Over manhattans at her Minneapolis house they would talk, and when they couldn’t meet, they corresponded. Ueland always closed her letters with “Strength to Your Sword Arm.” (That was also the title of her selected writings, published in 1996 by Holy Cow! Press of Duluth.)
Michio Kushi was Utne’s introduction to macrobiotic eating and acupuncture. Kushi believed that food is the key to health because only truly healthy people can be peaceful. He strove to teach his students how to discover universal principles that apply to every human being. As for Robert Schwartz, Utne admits in the book he wanted to be like this entrepreneur who had a huge house/conference center in New York. He came into Utne’s life just when Eric was trying to figure out to make money ethically.
“Bob was an outsider from the Midwest, like me,” Utne writes. “He loved Ideas. He was a journalist and magazine person. He’d made it in the big city by any measure of success. And yet he saw himself as a true agent of change. He counted among his friends many in my pantheon of ideological dieties, and he was on intimate terms with them.”
Utne was also influenced by Robert Bly, Minnesota poet, translator and founder of the men’s movement, who Eric managed to anger twice through no fault of his own.
“I learned from Robert and from being in a men’s group the kind of friendships men have where they can talk about stuff that may not be talked about in mixed company.” Utne says. For 10 years, he and some friends came together as the Mud Lake Men to read poetry, talk about issues, and discuss what it’s like to be husband, father and son of aging parents.
Male connections continue in Utne’s family with weekly Skype discussions with his sons Leif, Sam, Oliver and Eli, who are spread around the country and abroad. “I am thrilled my sons still talk to me,” Utne said with a laugh. “We have wonderful conversations, talk about everything. I feel more connected to them now than ever.”
‘IT’S SAD TO SEE IT GO’
In 2006, Utne Reader was purchased by Ogden Publications, publishers of “Earth News” and other magazines, and the offices moved to Kansas. The print edition ceased publication last fall and it is now a “digital digest” at utne.com.
“It’s sad to see it go,” Utne admits. “These times need something like this more than ever. Our editorial credo was to no particular point of view. No one has the sole proprietorship on good ideas. It takes multiple perspectives to come closer to the truth.”
Utne looked into re-acquiring the magazine a few months ago because he felt they weren’t tapping into the zeitgeist anymore, but the publisher turned him down.
Would he still like to do something similar now? “I’m sitting by the phone if anybody wants to talk,” he jokes.
Utne reads a few online magazines these days, including Emergence, a psychology and spirituality publication he calls “brilliant”; Dark Mountain Journal, a twice-yearly 350-page beautifully bound hardcover volume of the arts and an online weekly offering with similar content; The Guardian, which bills itself as “the world’s liberal voice” with global and U.S. editions and, of course, the Pioneer Press.
“I blame media for so much of our current polarization,” he said. “Everybody feels they have to have an opinion about everything instead of trying to be informed or put themselves in others’ shoes. Talk radio started that and it is everywhere now, including newspapers. On late night television (Stephen) Colbert makes fun of (President) Trump all night. That’s how a lot of people get their news. It used to be Jon Stewart or Walter Cronkite. At that time the media was common ground. Now there is no forum where everyone gathers.”
Now that Utne is an elder, a word he doesn’t like much, he took his fellow boomers to task in an op/ed published in the July 24 New York Times. It was headlined: “Feeling Hopeless? Embrace It.”
In the piece, Utne muses that “At some point, boomers lost their way, becoming more concerned with making a living than changing the world.” He personally sees things as more dire every day with the pandemic continuing and protests over George Floyd’s killing sparking world protests. But he argues hopelessness is not a bad thing.
“Giving up hope, and facing my imminent demise, has been a kind of liberation,” he writes. “I’m noticing the needs that arise around me, through direct requests from my family and friends, and from complete strangers. I’m working daily and remotely with a group of neighbors in rural Wisconsin to stop expansion of a frac sand mine, reading and talking with friends and family about racism and white privilege, planting oak and apple trees, and mentoring a young friend who is starting an online dance collective.”
The Wisconsin group Utne mentions is in Osceola, where the sand and gravel pit that would be expanded is near a historic business district, a hospital and homes. By coincidence, his letter about fracing appeared in the Osceola Sun weekly newspaper (circulation 2,200), the same day as his op/ed was published in the New York Times (circulation over a million).
What does it say about Eric Utne that his writing appeared on the same day in a very big newspaper on the East Coast and a very small one in the Midwest?
“In the ’60s and ’70s we used to say, ‘Think globally, act locally,’ ” he says. “I seem to be still doing that.”
A quote that has meaning for Utne is from Pablo Picasso, who divided the world into two groups: seekers and finders. Seekers, the famous artist said, go through life as though they’re looking for their lost car keys. Finders, on the other hand, are open to whatever life presents.
In the past, Utne has called himself a seeker. Now, he says, he’s more of a finder: “I feel very fortunate. If you open to life, things show up.”