The Peripatetic Reviewer

IN THE year just past, American magazines, including professional and trade journals, sold more than 5 billion copies. This figure, the highest in the history of the industry, is evidence of a surprising amount of reading at home as well as on the plane and in barbershops; it indicates that magazines can hold their own in competition with the overstocked racks of paperbacks (of which close to 400 million were sold in 1963) and, what is more significant, that they are prospering despite the cutthroat competition with television for the advertiser’s dollar. Television’s astronomical charges have had something to do with this: for instance, the four sponsors of the Judy Garland Show paid $56,000 a minute for their commercials. You can buy a lot of white paper for that amount. This year for the first time the total billing for advertising in the national magazines will pass a billion dollars.
The contents of our periodicals have a wider spectrum than ever before: they reflect our concerns as a world power, and in featuring the article rather than the short story or the serial, they respond to the conscientiousness with which many readers apply themselves. People work hard at their reading today, a good deal harder than they did in the 1920s and 1930s. Every profession, and almost every business, has its trade paper; they range from the Architectural Forum to the Bee World, from the American Journal of Psychiatry to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. There are more than twenty-five hundred of these trade journals, arid Lhey are mandatory reading for those who wish to keep abreast. Our curiosity about science in all its phases has vastly increased the amount of material published for the specialists, but we have nothing like enough scientifically trained writers to explain what the general reader wants to know. The cheapening of the four-color process has let us in for a good deal of nudity enough to shock our Russian visitors when they come here on a cultural exchange — yet I notice that a girlie magazine like Playboy began to have literary pretensions by its fifth year. Finally, the costs of manufacture have risen to a point where one needs three quarters of a million dollars to launch a new magazine or to resuscitate an old one, yet it can still be done, as witness the success of American Heritage under James Parton and the reanimation of the Scientific American by Gerard Piel.
The magazine as we have developed it is a singularly American product, democratic in its taste, and read equally by men and women, In no other country are there such vast aggregations of readers served by papers as different as the National Geographic, the New Yorker, and Look. Britain favors the political weekly, yet its best regarded, the New Statesman, rarely reaches a circulation of sixty thousand. Now Mir, the Atlantic Monthly of the Soviet Union, and a very capacious literary production, printed at the state’s expense without a line of advertising, actually sells far fewer copies than the Atlantic or Harper’s. Time and Life have established a format which has been copied to a lesser extent on the Continent. But not in Germany, not in France, not in Russia, are there journals reaching the millions — fourteen million for the Reader’s Digest — such as ours do every month.


For a period of twenty-five years, from 1890 to 1915, before movies and motors, radios and television, had fractured our time, the magazine had the whole field to itself. When the process of photoengraving made the halftone accessible and inexpensive, magazines took on a new look and became a national medium for advertising. By the 1890s the successful publications were printing more than one hundred and fifty pages of advertisements in each issue at a price of $400 a page. Three great editors rode the crest of this wave: oldtimer Richard Watson Gilder of the Century, Walter Hines Page, the Southerner who edited the Atlantic and then founded the World’s Work, and S. S. McClure. Of the three. McClure was the most spectacular.
Sam McClure had the quick qualities of the Irish: he was inquisitive, irrepressible, a bundle of nerves out to conquer the world. A jack-of-alltrades while he was being schooled in Indiana, he worked his way through Knox College, fell in love with a professor’s daughter, and two months after graduation was making himself indispensable to Colonel Albert Pope, the leading manufacturer of bicycles. Sam taught beginners how to ride and in no time was editing his first publication, the Wheelman, at a salary of ten dollars a week. He was still in his mid-twenties when the Century bid him in, and with his bride, who had married him despite her father’s fierce opposition, he began his siege of New York. So far he is a hero out of Horatio Alger and, as PETER LYON tells it in SUCCESS STORY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF S. S. MCCLURE (Scribner’s, $7.50), an impulsive, powerful dynamo. But McClure could never for long be an assistant to anyone: he had to run his own show; and when he came up with some quite unorthodox proposals one major and nine minor ones — Century fired him.
McClure’s major proposal was that he should form a syndicate of the best American writers and sell the second serial rights of their short stories and novels to the newspapers, who, thanks to the new processing of wood pulp, had more and more columns to fill. McClure did not invent the syndicate; all he wanted was a corner on the market: and when in London he signed an agreement with the English syndicator William Tillotson, he believed that he had captured the exclusive rights on Ouida. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and H. Rider Haggard; a newcomer with an odd name, Rudyard Kipling; and. that gem of great price, Robert Louis Stevenson. His job as he saw it was to exhort them for more as he peddled their offerings from paper to paper across the United States. His enterprise and his generous fees won the trust of Sarah Orne Jewett as well as of the more suspicious Kipling, but his bumptiousness put Stevenson off. Measured by columns filled, the syndicate was a huge success, but McClure kept gambling on the future to pay for the present, and year after year he wound up with debts which would have daunted a lesser man. His way out was to bring the material to a head in a magazine which would bear his own name, McClure’s. “I would rather edit a magazine,” he told his wife, “than be President of the United States a hundred thousand times over.”
McClure’s was a challenge to the more conservative periodicals, and as is so often the case with what is new, it had to skin the edge of bankruptcy before it began to dazzle. McClure never lacked daring, and once again he began mortgaging the future to buy his presses and the bindery. Meantime he was attracting to him a remarkable staff: Viola Roseboro, the best manuscript reader of her time; and after her, two inseparables, Ida M. barbell and Willa Cather. By the spring of 1899 these were his chief contributors: William Alien White, Ray Stannard Baker. Frank Norris, and Booth Tarkington; Stephen Crane and Hamlin Garland; Lincoln Steffens, Theodore Dreiser. O, Henry, and Jack London. Then, following the assassination of McKinley, came the big opportunity. When the new President. Teddy Roosevelt, began to wage war on the big trusts and the buccaneers, McClure’s sent out its bloodhounds: Ida Tarbell began her investigation of the Standard Oil Company; Lincoln Steffens wrote his series on The Shame of the Cities, case studies of corruption in city hall; Ray Stannard Baker began his study of the railroad magnates and of the trade union excesses in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Readers might be shocked and angry and incredulous, but they continued to read, and the circulation went up over the 400,000 mark.
McClure and his wife both squirreled their letters and clippings, and from a mass of papers Mr. Lyon has documented his fascinating book. He writes as a partisan, and this leads him to some excessive statements. The palace revolution of 1906, which lost McClure the services of his best people, including the long-suffering John Phillips, was not an evil conspiracy but an honest reaction against a man who was showing manic symptoms and who could no longer be worked with. Nor was he “the greatest” of American editors. His letters, of which far too many are quoted, are without a trace of style; I doubt if he knew a good poem when he saw one, and his taste in fiction was certainly questionable. Primarily he was an idea man with, as Edward S. Martin puts it, his hand “on the crank that turns the world upside down.” He drove himself as mercilessly as he drove others, and by 1914 he had lost his grip: but in the era of muckraking he was tops.


THE BOOK OF THE DANCE (Golden Press, $14.95), with illustrations by N. M. Bodecker and photographs and colorplates of surprising beauty, is a work of exposition to which AGNES DE MILLE has devoted years. The opening section of text, on Ritual and Social Dance, is the least prepossessing, partly because it seems addressed to a very elementary audience and partly because the staccato paragraphs lack the warmth and judgment characteristic of de Mille’s best prose. It would be a pity if this turned readers away, for in the second section the pages come alive, the schoolmistress who has been using her pointer disappears, and suddenly we are caught up in the spirit, the rivalry, and the beauty of the dance world. How well she brings out the glory of Taglioni, Pavlova, and Martha Graham; how vividly she depicts the style with which each nation accentuates its ballet, the rivalry within Russia which still goes on between the Leningrad and Moscow schools, the faithful continuity with which the Danes have preserved the traditions of August Bournonville, and the decadence in Paris and for so long in our own Metropolitan Opera House. Miss de Mille is at her best in her appreciation of her peers; her tributes to Balanchine, to Antony Tudor, Marie Rambert, and Jerome Robbins add a new dimension to theatrical criticism.


It has been a long time since I enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as THE HAT ON THE BED, the twenty-four new stories by JOHN O’HARA (Random House, $5.95). The best of these to my taste are the very short ones: “The Man on the Tractor,” “The Public Dorothy,” “The Windowpane Check,” “The Flatted Saxophone,” narratives which project us into the lives of middle-aged couples and which tell us so much about them by the sheer power of suggestion. Unencumbered with detail, casual yet revealing in the dialogue, these pieces are written with a swift grasp of reality. And for those who remember Butterfield 8, there is an exceptionally long story, “Ninety Minutes Away,” which shows that Mr. O’Hara has lost none of his authority in the offcolor world too.
THE CINCINNATI KID, by a new writer, RICHARD JESSUP (Little. Brown, $3.95), is the story, not quite long enough to be a novel, of a professional gambler. The Kid, who is twenty-six when we first see him, had been playing stud poker all day and all night for years; his reputation for coolness and the bluff had grown as he worked his way up through the cheap stuff; and now, despite warnings, he hankers for a shot at Lancey Hodges, The Man who rules the stud-poker circuit from Vegas to Miami. In the buildup before they meet we follow The Kid’s courting in the Ozarks and come to understand the fever in his blood which makes him an alien in the family circle. We watch his extraordinary preparations for the big game — it will probably consume forty-eight hours — at the Dorset Hotel, and what follows is the most exciting, plausible account of table stakes I have ever sat in on.