LITERATURE AUGUST 17, 2011
by Robert Vanderlan
University of Pennsylvania Press, 384 pp., $49.95
CIRCLES ARE INTEGRAL to the romance of intellectual history, and magazines are integral to the history of intellectual circles. The New York intellectuals had Partisan Review and Commentary; T.S. Eliot created The Criterion and Sartre created Les Temps Modernes; Moscow’s intellectuals had Novy Mir in the Soviet era; Berlin housed Der Monat for the duration of the Cold War; American progressives and liberals built their home, for decades, in The New Republic. In the nineteenth century, Edinburgh gave its name to the Edinburgh Review, as London now does to the London Review of Books and New York to The New York Review of Books. Each of these journals and magazines, edited by known personalities in significant cities, describes a milieu and a moment. The romance surrounding them is the romance of escape—from the status quo, from the provinces, from mediocrity, from the kind of writing one does for the wrong reasons.
Robert Vanderlan offers an unromantic book about a magazine, a milieu, and a city. Henry Luce was no Eliot or Sartre. He was a man of sizable intellectual ambition whose deepest talent was for business, and through three magazines—Time, Life and Fortune—he created an extraordinary media empire. Luce’s profit-motivated kingdom had to be in New York, “a city whose position at the heart of the emerging consumer culture disciplined more than it liberated,” in Vanderlan’s words. The irony of Vanderlan’s story is that many of the same New York intellectuals who appeared in the pages of Partisan Review—Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, and Daniel Bell, for example—wrote for Time and Fortune as well. Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans also took pictures for Luce. Luce gave these artists and intellectuals more than a salary. He gave them access to an audience, a massive audience, and in doing so he influenced the course of their careers.
Vanderlan’s subject is “the interstitial intellectual,” neither fully autonomous nor coercively employed. Such a subject requires him to trace a historical trajectory. American intellectuals veered toward bohemian autonomy in the 1920s, decrying the pursuit of money as vulgar. Then came the Great Depression. Not only had the imperative of making money, or making a living, grown unforgiving, but the cherished autonomy of the 1920s could be experienced over time as unwanted solitude. The paradigmatic example, for Vanderlan, is the poet-intellectual Archibald Macleish, who took a job at Time in the late 1920s because it offered him a regular income, and also because he “was frustrated by his isolation.” Time and Fortune put him in the company of tens of thousands of readers.
Vanderlan demolishes the cliché that intellectuals ceased being intellectuals by writing for Time or Life or Fortune. In the 1930s and 40s, mass-media journalism and the life of the mind merged in the offices of Luce’s empire, with significant consequences for American journalism and intellectual culture. James Agee smuggled “his own vision of journalism into Luce’s magazine.” John Hersey, Theodore White, and Whittaker Chambers pioneered a new genre of “political literature” at Time. Hersey’s writing in particular can be read “as a forerunner to the ‘new journalism’ of the 1960s.” John Kenneth Galbraith gathered inside information on the corporate world in the five years that he worked at Fortune, from 1943 to 1948; he would put it to use as an academic economist. Daniel Bell authored a respected column on labor for Fortune, playing with ideas that would eventually grow into books.
Walker Evans’s photographs complete Vanderlan’s historical argument. “For twenty years Evans used Fortune as his platform,” Vanderlan observes, “in furtherance of his own artistic interests and in constant querulous dialogue with America’s industrial civilization.” The documentary style, commonly associated with the radical 1930s and with the zeal to expose injustice, is shown here to have another source: journalists’ day-to-day need to capture the world in words and images, modified in the 1930s by new print technologies for disseminating photographs. The journalist and the artist could learn from one another. They could even be the same person, just as Evans’s photographs could be wedded to text by his Time/Life/Fortune colleague James Agee. This marriage of word and image, of documents and the documentary aesthetic, became their shared masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which appeared in 1941, a forward-looking monument to the style and sentiment of the preceding decade.
By the 1950s, in Vanderlan’s view, creativity was vanishing from within the Luce empire. At fault were Luce’s calcifying conservatism and “the strengthening of the Cold War consensus” in America. Intellectuals began their long escape into academia and journalists their descent into grubby commercialism. Intellectuals went one way, magazines another, and a tenuous middle ground was lost. This narrative of structural decline is reductive; it exaggerates the aloofness of academia and the crassness of American journalism in the second half of the twentieth century; but for Vanderlan it confirms the historical salience of Luce’s magazines. In their best years, the Luce magazines furnished “a model worth emulating.”
Intellectuals Incorporated is a bracing contribution to American intellectual history. It is full of well-drawn biographical portraits, and through them Vanderlan analyzes a dynamic whereby intellectuals transform and are transformed by the world around them. The book reveals the complexity of this process, and Vanderlan writes about multiple paradoxes with originality and insight. What may at first be a job, and only that, can evolve into a calling. Luce, the rich and self-confident boss, owner, and entrepreneur was in charge, but he was consistently vulnerable to the will of others, the writers and photographers in his service. The market may be omnipotent, but the power behind this market is the consumers buying and reading the magazines, and they are often unformed and pliable. These consumers are altered by what they see and read. In this way, intellectuals, incorporated or not, can act upon the world as much as bosses and entrepreneurs.
Vivid as Vanderlan’s biographical sketches are and rich as the material is, his overarching argument is not flawless. At times he blurs the distinction between the intellectuals who worked for Luce and the intellectuals whose writing or art was directly determined by their work for Luce. As soon as they were able to do so, Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe fled the Luce empire in search of less commercial, more artistic, and more left-wing venues. Daniel Bell suffered social exclusion for his connection to Fortune. Writing for it violated some New York intellectual code, and Vanderlan notes that “when putting together The End of Ideology, Bell purposely left out most of his Fortune work.” As James Agee and Walker Evans compiled the text and photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, they were rewarded by Fortune with a “refusal to use their material.” The distance between Luce’s publications and a bona fide intellectual magazine—like Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books—could be crushing. It was often more crushing than creative.
A second flaw in Vanderlan’s analysis is his equation of real intellectual life with the American Left. He explores in great detail the relationship between Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Luce empire, a progressive achievement accomplished against the odds. Moving to the other end of the political spectrum, he describes Whittaker Chambers as “in some ways the most successful interstitial intellectual at Time.” Yet Vanderlan ignores entirely the relationship between Chambers’s tenure at Time and Witness, his best-selling magnum opus. Vanderlan reads Witness as “marred by the conspiratorial convictions arising from [Chambers’s] inability to see Communism clearly.” But Chambers did see communism clearly, and he knew its conspiratorial convictions first-hand—both his own erstwhile convictions and the ongoing conspiratorial convictions of Alger Hiss. Vanderlan’s misreading would be immaterial if it did not inhibit him from analyzing the birth of mass-media conservatism, a commonplace phenomenon of the present moment and one that Chambers was struggling to anticipate in Witness.
Vanderlan’s mention of Willi Schlamm marks another missed connection in his book. An Austrian-Jewish communist turned conservative, Schlamm tried to found a new magazine under the Luce rubric. It was inauspiciously named Magazine X, and the venture went nowhere, but Schlamm himself would go on to National Review, transposing the acumen acquired under Luce’s tutelage. As far as politics and ideas are concerned, the cross-fertilization between modern media and conservative advocacy, to which Luce introduced Schlamm and Chambers in New York, may be the story of Time, Life, and Fortune. Progressive projects within the Luce empire tended, by contrast, to culminate in frustration. Vanderlan could have given his book a provocative conclusion by comparing Henry Luce and Roger Ailes.
Intellectuals Incorporated is valuable for its counter-intuitive rigor. Vanderlan devotes meticulous research to flesh-and-blood figures trying to make it in a city that has been hospitable to intellectuals and their magazines, a city that produces countless books and patronizes all the arts without being an easy place for artists and intellectuals to flourish. Vanderlan sheds new light on the dilemma of these New York intellectuals, men and women who knew compromise, were not averse to making money, had to operate in close proximity to an opinionated business-man boss (who was fond of Republicans to boot) and write for magazines intended to attract advertisers. This was not the typical intellectual circle, but it has, in Vanderlan’s recreation of it, an aura that is accurate, familiar, and poignant.
Michael Kimmage is an associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America and the author of The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism.