The American Magazine

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Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; 240 pages.

Perfect for a coffee table already piled high with magazines, this book colorfully documents the 250-year history of the medium since Benjamin Franklin’s rival Andrew Bradford started in 1741 what is considered the first American magazine. Bradford was out of business in three months, but Americans quickly developed a taste for the news, gossip, and political rhetoric contained in the host of periodicals that sprang up in his wake.

In 1788 George Washington wrote, “I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free people.” Books were long and expensive; magazines became an affordable, alternate public forum that allowed their readers access to new ideas that would later be discussed in the drawing room, coffee house, or tavern.

Some of these ideas were enormous. Magazines brought us the crusading words of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and opened our eyes to Carson McCullers’s “silent spring.” They are also perhaps the truest register of national cultural changes. Popular Mechanics and American Horticulturist reflect the post-World War I interest in hobbies and diversions. For a startlingly intense sense of what the 1960s were like, just pick up any copy of Esquire or Life published in that decade.

Brisk and informative, The American Magazine offers essays on magazine publishing, prose, illustration, and design. The kingpins of editing and publishing are here, offering their own stories and anecdotes on the work of the magazine world. When asked how a weekly so shamelessly opinionated as Time could call itself a newsmagazine, Henry Luce said, “I invented the idea, so I guess I can call it anything I like.” We also hear from the Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich about how he was so determined to get a story from Ernest Hemingway that, after badgering the author for months, Hemingway finally said they could decide the matter with a beer-can-shooting contest. Gingrich got his story, despite the fact that before the contest he had never pulled a trigger in his life. “I guess he was more drunk than I was,” Gingrich explained.

Though we are constantly hearing of magazine failures today, most of their colonial predecessors did little better. A time-line in the back of the book reveals that of the eleven magazines that sprang up in the 1790s, only four lasted for more than a year. Only one is still going: this year The Old Farmer’s Almanac is celebrating its bicentennial.

So despite the current woes of the publishing business and the fears of an increasingly illiterate society, magazines are still our favorite way to read. The very sophisticated Arnold Gingrich said that magazines always evoked in him a “sense of wonder.” Looking at this volume, it is easy to see why.