The Publisher, by Alan Brinkley
The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
By Alan Brinkley
Knopf, 560 pages
When Henry R. Luce died in 1967, he left behind a publishing empire that was more influential than any then in operation in the United States. The four pillars of that empire—the weeklies Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated—dominated their respective markets over imitators like Newsweek, Look, and Business Week. His magazines shaped middle-class opinion in the United States during the middle decades of this century to a degree unimaginable today. Much that Americans knew or thought they knew about their country and its role in the wider world was filtered through the pages of Luce’s publications. Luce was one of the most powerful figures of his time, but also among the least understood and appreciated.
Alan Brinkley presents a rounded portrait of Luce in his splendid new biography, The Publisher. Brinkley, professor of history at Columbia and author of books on the New Deal and the Great Depression, offers a mixed assessment of Luce as a visionary publisher and a leader of various failed political causes. As his subtitle implies, Brinkley sees a gulf between Luce’s personal vision for “the American century” and the history that actually transpired.
Luce’s perspective on America and the world was shaped by his early life in China, where he was born to American missionaries in 1898. He was a schoolboy in 1911 when the nationalist revolution swept aside the Qing dynasty, an event that cemented the admiration for China’s Nationalist party that would come to dominate the view of Asia presented in his magazines. Everything young Harry learned about the United States was conveyed through books or stories told by parents and teachers, giving rise, in Brinkley’s view, to a lifelong penchant for viewing the United States through the prism of ideas and abstract conceptions. This habit of mind encouraged a gradual change in perspective in the younger Luce in which the crusading religion of his father was replaced by his own version of a crusading “Americanism.”
Luce found his way into journalism through a boarding-school friendship with Briton Hadden that continued at Yale, where both signed on as editors of the Yale Daily News. Hadden was as outgoing and adventuresome as Luce was earnest and reserved, and it was Hadden who initially conceived the idea of publishing a weekly digest of national and international news.
After graduating from Yale, in 1920, Luce and Hadden hatched their plan for a publication originally to be called Facts; Luce and Hadden later settled on Time because, as Brinkley writes, it conveyed the dual purpose of the magazine, “to chronicle the passage of time and save readers precious time.” The two partners, true to their personalities, went into the enterprise with different but complementary purposes: Hadden to entertain, Luce to elevate. By a flip of a coin, Luce became the business manager for the magazine, while Hadden took over editorial duties. According to their prospectus, Time would express a prejudice against “the rising cost of government” and “a respect for the old, particularly in manners.” It would be conservative in substance but lively, even puckish, in tone.
From the first issue of the magazine, which appeared on March 3, 1923, Time carried forward the mix of innovations for which it would become known: “rigid organization, concise news summaries, lively language, whimsical diversions, and casual and even at times sophomoric expressions of opinion.” The editors adopted the practice of placing the portrait of a prominent person on the cover each week and, in December, of designating a “Man of the Year.” They also dropped a clue as to their taste in literature when, in the inaugural issue, they panned T.?S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” and, in a subsequent issue, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Hadden’s death in 1929 at the age of 31 left Luce with a free hand as the chief executive of a still young but increasingly profitable enterprise. It was during the decade of the 1930s that Luce earned his stripes as the century’s most visionary publisher, transforming Time into a worldwide news-gathering enterprise and also creating Fortune in 1930 and Life in 1936. They served as outlets for his optimistic and uplifting ideals about the United States and its expanding technological civilization. Fortune was to provide “a record of modern industrial civilization,” with an emphasis on enterprise, invention, and the advancing machinery of contemporary life. Luce recruited a corps of first-class writers for Fortune, among them James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, and Archibald MacLeish, and for Life some exceptional photographers, led by Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt, even though they frequently disagreed with his editorial judgments. The investment in talent paid off for both publications. Fortune was a success on the newsstands and Life a sensation, immediately selling out all 250,000 copies of its first printing and creating a demand that ran to two or three times that number.
This was also a period of intense emotional turmoil for Luce caused by his public romance with Clare Boothe Brokaw, whom he encountered at a dinner party in 1934. After engaging her in deep conversation, Luce decided that he was “hopelessly” in love and immediately began an intense courtship that led to a divorce from his wife of 12 years and to remarriage, to Clare, in 1935. As Brinkley tastefully recounts the tale, the marriage soon turned cold as both partners gave more attention to their own considerable careers than to each other. The marriage endured, though Harry and Clare frequently lived apart, and both engaged in numerous and sometimes reckless affairs during their decades together. After her 19-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident in 1944, Clare turned to the Catholic Church for spiritual consolation, eventually converting in 1946—in a ceremony Luce did not attend.
Luce came into his own as a public figure in the late 1930s when he took an active role in supporting American intervention in the war in Europe and in opposing FDR’s bid for a third term. Luce’s new position as an “internationalist” required an adjustment in Time’s international coverage, which in the mid-1930s had been slanted in favor of Mussolini and, occasionally, even Hitler. Luce summed up his developing views in “The American Century,” his essay that appeared in Life in 1941 calling on the United States to take a more active role in the world commensurate with its growing power and to assume the role of world leadership in the 20th century that Great Britain played in the 19th. The “American Century” would be one in which the United States shared its free institutions with peoples around the world.
When the war came, Luce placed the resources of Time Inc. behind the effort, opening news bureaus around the globe, sending reporters and photographers everywhere to cover the war, and distributing free copies of Time and Life to servicemen stationed abroad. By the end of 1942, Time’s circulation reached 1 million, and Life’s nearly 4 million. Opinion surveys consistently ranked Life as the nation’s most popular magazine and Time as the most important. In chronicling the war, Luce’s magazines reached new peaks of influence and profitability.
The war years were also known within Time as the period of “the Chambers war,” as the magazine’s writers divided over the editorial influence of a senior editor named Whittaker Chambers, who had yet to become America’s most controversial intellectual anti-Communist. Notwithstanding the bitter complaints from colleagues, Chambers shaped the international-news section in accordance with his views, attacking Left-leaning intellectuals and placing Stalin on the same level as Hitler as an enemy of the United States and of Western civilization. Luce stood by Chambers, declaring in early 1945 that the “posture of events seems to have confirmed editor Chambers about as fully as a news editor is ever confirmed.” Later that year Chambers was forced to leave his post at Time owing to ill health, working for Luce on special projects from his home in Maryland until the notoriety he achieved for exposing the State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent caused Luce to sever ties. Still, as Brinkley writes, “He remained to Luce one of the best editors and writers he had ever employed.”
The Communist revolution in China, and the corresponding defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, was Luce’s greatest disappointment, one he never quite got over. Luce fought with his own reporters and correspondents over Time’s coverage of China and lobbied high-ranking officials to provide vital aid to Chiang’s government. Theodore H. White, Time’s correspondent in China, sent back reports claiming that Chiang would inevitably fall because his government was corrupt and dictatorial. Luce at times turned to Chambers to recast these reports to highlight the immense stakes involved in the Chinese struggle. Later Luce, much like Chambers, would blame Chiang’s fall on the defeatism of liberals like White and the incompetence of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The episode provoked doubts in Luce’s mind as to whether the United States was in fact up for the challenges he laid down in “The American Century.”
The events in China solidified Luce’s views about Communism and the Cold War, causing him to flirt at times with conspiracy theories to account for the fall of the nationalist government. “Communism is the most monstrous cancer which ever attacked humanity,” he wrote in 1949 in a Chambers-like mood, “and we shall do our best to combat it at all times and places.” He rejected containment as a national strategy, joining forces with others who, in the 1950s, called for a policy of “rolling back” Communism in Europe and Asia. When the United States sent troops to Korea in 1950, Luce held out new hope that the intervention might lead to the unification of Korea and eventually to an American-led effort to restore the nationalist government to power in China (a hope that Luce would renew in the early years of the intervention in Vietnam).
Luce died in 1967 at precisely the moment when his vision of American leadership in the world was under attack from the new Left and his concept of progressive conservatism from the new Right. Luce’s center did not hold. Time, in the years after his death, moved rapidly leftward, abandoning Luce’s moderate conservatism for a brand of liberalism he had spent most of his life attacking.
The Luce that emerges is a figure of impressive achievement, largely constructive for the nation and the world. The Publisher is itself an impressive achievement, in which Brinkley lets Luce speak for himself, allowing readers to make their own judgments about his complex subject. Brinkley’s own interpretation of Luce’s life, which he does not impose upon the reader, is more problematic. Luce could not have been so successful and enduringly powerful as a maker and publisher of mass-circulation magazines if the political views expressed through them had been as quixotic, impractical, and “futile” as Brinkley suggests. It seems rather more the case that the financial and political success of his work was closely linked to his vision for America and its place in the world.
As history has shown, Luce was right about many of his “crusades”—that the U.S. should intervene to help Great Britain in 1940, that the future of civilization required the defeat of Hitler, that Stalin and Mao were as bad as Hitler, and that the United States should extend full civil rights to all its citizens.
There will never be another Henry Luce, partly because of the Balkanizing effect of the Internet but also because the middle-class audience that was the backbone of his empire no longer coheres as it did in the middle decades of the 20th century. Luce was a hugely important figure because of the vital role his magazines played in educating the American middle class about politics, ideas, and culture between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, though by the latter decade he was clearly running out of gas. And unlike most of those who seek to dominate the media business today, Luce actively sought to elevate and educate his readers.
He was not a man of ideas himself, not really, but he recognized their importance and paid them appropriate respect. Intellectuals who spent decades criticizing and reviling him now have cause to see what a world without Henry Luce is like. Time may have attacked Eliot and Joyce in its early days, but at least Time’s readers were told they existed. Today, with Time and its fellow magazines slowly suffocating to death by advertising deprivation, and with the company Luce built so brilliantly over the space of 40 years now merely a survivor of several ruinous mergers, one would barely be aware that there were such things as books at all.