“It used to be one of our proudest boasts that we welcomed the downtrodden, the oppressed, the poverty-stricken, the fit and the unfit to a land of freedom, of plenty, of boundless opportunity. Our hindsight tells us that this boast was fatuous.”
—George Horace

Believe it or not, Chronicles was not the first magazine in American history to question the virtue of unrestricted immigration. During the heady days of the early 1920’s, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was recording the “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” the Saturday Evening Post sought to concentrate serious attention on the social, political, and cultural consequences of welcoming everyone and anyone into this country. “We’ve got to hammer at immigration until Washington and the country at large wake up to what’s happening,” it declared in 1920. The Post even went so far as to encourage Posterity to mark and hail the sailing of a little-known ship, the Buford. “Two ships, the Mayflower and the Buford, mark epochs in the history of America,” announced the Post. “The Mayflower brought the first builders to this country; the Buford [which carried America’s first lot of deported aliens in December 1919] has taken away the first destroyers.”

No national publication fought more passionately for immigration reform, and the astonishing success of the Post‘s crusade is the best evidence of the extraordinary influence that this magazine exerted during its prime. According to W.W. Husband, commissioner-general of immigration in the 1920’s, the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924—America’s first permanent quota law, which set the stage for the national origins plan of 1929—was directly attributable to the influence of George Horace Lorimer’s Saturday Evening Post.

Jan Cohn, dean of the faculty and a professor of English at Trinity College, has written a superb account of Lorimer’s nearly forty-year reign as editor of the Post. This book is not biography; the author only discusses Lorimer’s public life as editor and allots a scant two paragraphs to his parentage (his father was a famous Baptist minister), upbringing (in Chicago and Boston), and years as an unsuccessful businessman before becoming editor of the Post at the age of 31. Nor is it corporate or institutional history; the Post is analyzed only in relation to Lorimer’s editorship, and only tangentially does Cohn attempt to elucidate the larger role that magazines such as the Post, McClure’s, the Ladies’ Home Journal, and World’s Work played in signaling the demise of the “gentle reader” of the Victorian Age and the commencement of the age of news and information. This book is, however, an intriguing hybrid of the two forms, for during the years of Lorimer’s editorship, 1899 through 1936, the shadow of the Post was exclusively that of its editor. Lorimer dominated every aspect of the magazine, and the magazine in turn dominated Lorimer’s life.

When Lorimer became editor the Post was a small, struggling, nondescript publication that had just recently been saved from bankruptcy by Ladies’ Home Journal publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis. Curtis is often remembered as one of the early masters of magazine marketing, and his ingenious use of a highly tenuous tie between the Post and Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette—suddenly changing the magazine’s founding year from 1821 to 1728, making Franklin the “founding editor” of the Saturday Evening Post—was indeed a coup worthy of Barnum. But Curtis’s true genius lay in matching editor to format, and his hiring of Lorimer for the Post quickly paid dividends. Lorimer made two policy changes that revolutionized the magazine industry and placed the Post in the literary limelight: he promised to take no longer than 72 hours to decide a manuscript’s fate, and to pay for manuscripts immediately upon acceptance. With policies such as these, and with a determined demeanor and a power to persuade, Lorimer needed no more than a year to transform the from a publisher of unknown authors and undistinguished fiction to a publication that ran articles by Grover Cleveland, Albert Beveridge, and William Jennings Bryan, and stories by Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, and Joel Chandler Harris.

The Post‘s weekly circulation reached one million in 1908 and climbed to nearly three million in the late 1920’s, when the average number of pages in a single issue burgeoned to two hundred. (The Post‘s readership, as Cohn rightly adds, was probably three to four times larger than the number of sold copies. In the age before radio, and particularly during the Depression, it is probable that a single issue was read by three or four other family members or friends.) Most telling are figures such as Lorimer’s 1929 salary, a modest $225,000, and the $6,000 and $60,000 rates that the Post paid respectively for short stories and serials in the late 1920’s. As the most successful American magazine editor of his time, Lorimer seemed to publish everyone who was anyone or who was bound to become anyone. He published the journalism of the popular Sam Blythe, Garet Garett, and Irvin S. Cobb; the illustrations of J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Livingston Bull, and (of course) Norman Rockwell; articles by Trotsky, Churchill, Mussolini, and virtually every American President and presidential candidate between Grover Cleveland and FDR; and fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, O. Henry, Pearl Buck, James Gould Cozzens, and William Faulkner. Readers of the Post read Frank Norris’s The Pit and Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Alfred Smith’s memoirs and Mussolini’s autobiography, and followed the adventures of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, J.P. Marquand’s Mr. Moto, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Before movies, radio, and television challenged the hegemony of the printed page, the Saturday Evening Post reigned supreme as America’s most popular chronicler of early 20th-century culture. “No single contemporary medium has anything like so powerful, because essentially unchallenged, a hold on mass society,” writes Cohn.

Lorimer achieved celebrity status in his lifetime, and he was frequently the subject of articles and interviews in the 1920’s. Most of these “personality profiles” were mere hagiographical puff pieces that paid homage to Lorimer’s genius while offering little if any analysis of his motives or methods. Leon Whipple’s 1928 article in Outlook, however, was different. Entitled the “SatEvePost: Mirror of These States,” Whipple posed the following: what does this “Niagara of Print,” as he described the Post, do to us? “What channels is it wearing in our society?” His conclusion was astute: that the Post was not merely a medium for entertainment and the dissemination of information, but rather was a “mirror” that “not only reflects us” but also “creates us.”

Cohn picks up where Whipple left off and assigns responsibility for this Promethean mission to George Lorimer. The Post, she contends, was the instrument Lorimer used to shape American society around a particular set of values and to “interpret America to itself.”

Lorimer was conscious from the outset of his editorial work that America was unformed as a nation; he saw the country as an unassimilated collection of regions and nationalities in which an overriding and unifying consciousness of Americanism had yet to be developed. The Post was conceived . . . as the medium of an American consciousness.

This new consciousness, as conceived and propagated by Lorimer, was to be based on the bourgeois culture of the 19th century. Born into Victorian America and inculcated with its mores, Lorimer would forever judge events by the degree to which they reflected the classical liberal ideals of diligence, thrift, simplicity, sobriety, self-reliance, and personal liberty. He never gave up hope that these 19th-century values could be molded to 20th-century opportunities and translated into a mass consciousness through the art, articles, and editorials of the Post. Lorimer and the Post became for rural, small-town, middle-class America what Henry Luce and Life became for the emerging suburban culture of the 1950’s: the editor became its spokesman, and the magazine its cultural voice.

Lorimer wasted no time in molding the Post to his purposes. The values he wished to inculcate in his readers were perhaps nowhere better laid out than in his didactic “Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son,” which appeared anonymously and serially in the Post between 1901 and 1902. The fictional self-made man was an old pork-packer named John Graham, and his son, Pierrepont, was a freshman at Harvard. The letters trace the son’s follies through college that give rise to his father’s homespun opinions and advice, and they set clearly in opposition two sets of social values: one that increasingly cherished titles and social station over diligence and true accomplishment, and another that coveted honesty, simplicity, and common sense. “It’s good business, when a fellow hasn’t much behind his forehead, to throw out his chest and attract attention to his shirt-front,” writes Graham. “But as you begin to meet men who have done something that makes them worth meeting you will find that there are no ‘keep off the grass’ or ‘beware of the dog’ signs around their premises, and that they don’t motion to the orchestra to play slow music while they talk.” Lorimer’s letters were an instant success, and they were published as a book in 1902. Letters of a Self-Made Merchant became a best-seller both here and abroad, and it was translated into more languages than any other American novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Not surprisingly, the America that Lorimer and the Post portrayed was not to everyone’s liking. Sinclair Lewis was perhaps the Post‘s most vocal nemesis in the 1920’s. His claim that the merrily ignorant Babbitt gained all his wisdom from the Post, which for Lewis stood as the apotheosis of the middle and middle-class America he sought to ridicule and mock, naturally outraged Lorimer, and the latter answered Lewis in the December 1924 Bookman. Lorimer conceded that Babbitt might exemplify one kind of American businessman, but added “there are quite as many Babbitts among the critics, the writers, the lawyers, and the professors as there are among the Rotarians.” Lorimer, however, would have the last laugh. In 1931, the year after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis was published in the Post.

Cohn makes it clear that Lorimer sought not only to proselytize and to declaim, but also to preserve and to defend. And it is in those instances in which Lorimer saw his mission specifically as one of “saving” America from an enemy—particularly when the enemy took the form of national policies and politics that threatened Americans’ personal liberty—that his character and convictions can best be seen. The foremost example of this was Lorimer’s opposition to FDR and the New Deal.

Lorimer had gone to war on other issues on many previous occasions. Like William Jennings Bryan and Sergeant Alvin York, Lorimer had been among the group of Americans who staunchly opposed America’s involvement in World War I, but who threw aside their ideological differences once war had been declared and patriotically supported their country’s fight abroad. Lorimer had also fought passionately and successfully for immigration reform in the 1920’s.’ But the new foe of the 1930’s was to Lorimer a foe of uncalculable danger. Lorimer saw in FDR and the New Deal a subversion of everything that was good about Americans and American culture, and he unleashed upon Roosevelt the full force of his rage and rhetoric.

Lorimer did, however, give Roosevelt a chance. During the honeymoon period afforded all newly elected Presidents, he urged the depressed country to stand behind Roosevelt. “Republicans and Democrats must back up the new Administration, but it, in turn, must back up America.” He steered the Post along a nonpartisan course in the months following the 1932 election, publishing articles with such titles as “Pull Together,” and stressing how “absolutely essential” it was that “the people should give their support and confidence to President Roosevelt.” But Lorimer could not stay this course for long, and the December 9, 1933, issue of the Post signaled an end to the truce if not an open declaration of war on Roosevelt. The “Brain Trust” received the Post‘s first volley. Nothing rankled Lorimer more than the radical-professor-turned-policymaker, and he urged the public to stay vigilant as to the true mission of these “best and the brightest”: “No thoughtful man can escape the conclusion that many of the brain trust’s ideas and plans are based on Russian ideology; that we are steadily being herded to the left; and that fundamental American ideas are in danger of being scrapped.”

During the next three years Lorimer tried to keep the country’s morale high with uplifting fiction and celebrity profiles, but he continued relentlessly in his editorials to hammer at what he saw as the administration’s abuses: economically, its policies had fueled monetary devaluation; politically, it had waged war on the Constitution, subverted the civil service, and reinstituted the spoils system; and morally and culturally, the New Deal’s socialist agenda—of a leviathan state promising subsistence without work and security without self-sacrifice—had undermined if not eradicated what was best in the American character. To the ubiquitous cry “Is everybody happy?” Lorimer sourly replied: “No . . . not those who hold fast to old-fashioned, commonsense ideas of thrift, economy, good faith and personal liberty.”

Cohn contends that Roosevelt’s landslide victory in the 1936 election dismayed Lorimer but did not lead to his decision to resign as editor. He had been diagnosed as having cancer, and his failing health is what prompted his resignation on January 1, 1937. He died ten months later.

The December 26, 1936, issue of the Post was the last one edited by Lorimer, and his editorial, “Looking Forward,” the only editorial he ever signed, was an unsentimental farewell. He made it clear to his readers that, for good or ill, and for nearly four decades, the magazine had been the voice of George Lorimer. “Up to the hour when this number of The Saturday Evening Post goes to press, I have formulated its policies, planned the numbers, and personally read and selected the material for them.” And he took this opportunity to summarize one final time his and the magazine’s editorial position. The Post had always encouraged and supported reasonable change, but never “cure-alls,” and never “change for the sake of change.”

If it is true, as Cohn concludes, that the 20th century had outgrown Lorimer’s 19th-century rhetoric, that his conception of “nineteenth-century bourgeois America had by the mid-1930s become increasingly distant from social reality,” it is also true that Lorimer had correctly assessed America’s social and cultural state. He correctly foresaw the social, moral, and cultural implications of a welfare economy, and he correctly traced the American leviathan to the Roosevelt administration. We must “render unto Roosevelt the things that are Roosevelt’s,” Lorimer concluded in a bitter turn of phrase. He also correctly discerned the modern American’s infatuation with “rights.” In a statement that embodies as much wisdom today as it did when he wrote it in 1936, Lorimer said: “I marvel whence mankind derives all these newly proclaimed rights. He came into being without a stitch to his back or right of any kind. What rights he now enjoys are such because [they are] embodied in laws and codes.” And he perceptively drew attention to one of the least attractive aspects of modern American culture: the intolerance of frank and free discussion. In a 1933 response to FDR’s attacks on the loyalty of those who criticized his policies, he wrote: “We are in danger of making it a crime to disagree with those who hold ideas and beliefs contrary to our own.” Prescience, Cohn might have added, was one of Lorimer’s virtues. 


[Lorimer Creating America: George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday Evening Post by Jan Cohn (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press) 326 pp., $24.95]