Whatever happened to the old middle-to-highbrow American culture? Once upon a time, there was a fair-sized literate class that kept up on fiction and verse by reading the great organs of literary opinion. These days there is a great gulf between serious literature and general-interest journalism. “Literary” magazines—Kenyon Review, Daedelus, or Sewanee Review, for instance—now constitute a small and isolated province, inhabited by a few thousand English professors and New York intellectuals. Meanwhile, large circulation magazines such as Harper’s, The Atlantic, or The Saturday Evening Post show little interest in belles lettres. Oh, Harper’s still carries an occasional short story (typically a prize winner, published first in some “little magazine”), and we still sometimes find a recent story by John Updike or verse by Marge Piercy in The Atlantic. The Saturday Evening Post likewise regularly prints a short story by popular writers like Ray Bradbury. And, too, large circulation magazines such as these three generally make space for reviews of one or two serious works of literature in each issue. But everyone knows that Alexander Cockburn’s deftly Marxist analysis of the Irish economy in The Atlantic or Jeane Kirkpatrick’s pronouncements on terrorism in Harper’s or the profile of Miss America in The Saturday Evening Post—these are what the magazines are really about. The snatches of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism are just window dressing, high-toned afterthoughts. The Atlantic says it all with a Table of Contents heading: “Humor and Fiction.” Literature may be good for a few laughs or help to pass the time at the beach, but today’s magazine editors have serious business to attend to.
We need not cross The Atlantic and go back to the days of Addison’s Spectator or Sam Johnson’s Rambler, of Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review and Thackeray’s Cornhill to find widely read journals serious about literature. We need not even return to Poe’s Southern Literary Messenger, William Dean Howells’s Atlantic Monthly, or G. W. Curtis’s Harpers New Monthly Magazine. In the opening decades of this century, America enjoyed a halfdozen large-circulation magazines devoted chiefly to literature, including Harper’s, Century, The Bookman, Scribner’s, and Saturday Review of Literature. In the early 1920’s, a typical issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, for instance, featured fiction by Conrad Aiken, Wilbur Daniel Steele, or G. K. Chesterton—as well as lesser-known writers. Poetry, too, was a Harper’s mainstay in the 20’s, with verse coming from A. A. Milne, Carl Sandburg, and now almost forgotten versifiers such as Florence Keady and Morrie Ryskind. At the same time. The Saturday Evening Post was publishing Ring Lardner, Stephen Vincent Benet, Willa Gather, Theodore Dreiser, and Joseph Conrad. The literary standards were perhaps even higher at Scribner’s, where editors Robert Bridges and Fritz Dashiell had the inside track with the Scribner’s stable; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Wolfe. Scribner’s poetry came from such pens as Mark Van Doren, Edmund Wilson, and John Hall Wheelock.
By the 1920’s, The Atlantic Monthly had become much less literary than it had been under Howells or under Bliss Perry (who left The Atlantic for Harvard in 1909), but it was still possible to find—amid the articles on “The Decline of Crime in Great Britain” or “Disarmament—An American Plan”—first-rate literary criticism on Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Izaak Walton, or A. E. Housman. Poetry then offered by The Atlantic included that of Archibald MacLeish, Amy Lowell, and Sara Teasdale.
Also auguring well for the state of American literature was the appearance in 1924 of the Saturday Review of Literature under the editorship of Henry Seidel Canby, a professor of English at Yale. Originally started in 1920 as a supplement to the New York Evening Post, the Saturday Review attempted “an audacious shifting from the timely . . . to present aspects of the eternal” by surveying “the best in fiction, poetry, and the general fields.” The effort fast won the support of such distinguished writers as Joseph Wood Krutch, George Santayana, and Van Wyck Brooks and poets such as Walter de la Mare, Conrad Aiken, and Marianne Moore. But this flowering of literary journalism did not last. It was a bad sign that when Harold W. Ross founded The New Yorker, his attempt to woo the flapper generation was only superficially literary, offering light verse (Ogden Nash), satire (James Thurber), and witty commentary on the manners, entertainments, morals, and fashions of the rich. As Eugene Exman, an editor at Harper’s, put it, the new magazine was for “the modern reader”—”cynical of moral, religious, social, political, and economic standards” and in search of “new values.”
It was, Exman explains in The House of Harper, because of the rise of these new attitudes among readers that Thomas B. Wells, editor of Harper’s, had decided in 1925 that the magazine “could not long survive unless it extended its appeal beyond genteel literary-minded readers to those who were concerned about public affairs as well.” Wells’s decision to publish articles on “controversial issues,” such as America’s Far East policy or the “New Woman-Power in Europe,” did work—circulation soon doubled. And while Scribner’s, Century, The Bookman, and Review of Reviews all folded during the 1930’s, Harper’s survived—but not as a literary magazine. On the basis of “declining public interest,” the editors stopped serializing all but the biggest names in fiction—Huxley, Greene, Maugham—during the 1950’s, and in the 1960’s explicitly acknowledged that “the trend of the Magazine is toward nonfiction.” In the late 1960’s, under the editorship of Willie Morris, fiction altogether disappeared from some issues of Harper’s while many others had only a token piece by some notable such as Ayi Kwei-Armah or Ivan Prashker. Meanwhile, the magazine idolized George McGovern, “body consciousness,” and Gore Vidal and anathematized Richard Nixon and nuclear power. The move toward the poetry of John Ashbery and Anne Sexton was just in time. If a final blow was needed, it came a year ago when Harper’s adopted a new format described by the New York Times as “breezier” and “fasterpaced.” “We are less a magazine for the English teacher,” explains editor Lewis Lapham. “There aren’t enough of them and they don’t make enough money.” As George Panichas observed recently in Modern Age, “For readers who revere the critical function of intellectual journalism . . . the fate of Harper’s is especially distressing as still another adulterative symptom and portent of breakdown.”
The Saturday Evening Post similarly bent to the wind and abandoned its commitment to literature. By the early 1960’s, as Otto Friedrich relates in Decline and Fall, the editors were busy fighting among themselves over what to say about Vietnam and whether to put Elizabeth Taylor on the cover (in those days some big advertisers actually thought Taylor was “immoral” and “didn’t like to have their ads in the same issue with her”). Fiction became a useful accessory only when it fit an issue defined on non-literary terms (e.g., some “New York fiction” was thought appropriate for an issue on the New York World’s Fair—with 11 pages of color pictures). But even Miss Taylor, in living color décolletage, couldn’t forestall the inevitable: the magazine folded in 1969. Reincarnated in 1971, the Post is now edited by Cory SerVaas, wife of a leading businessman and community leader, and published in Indianapolis. The new version evinces a refreshingly pro-Christian slant, but is no longer in the publishing mainstream and is only marginally committed to literature: interviews with Crystal Gayle and Pat Robertson come first.
The Atlantic continued to offer some first-rate poetry through the 1950’s, but—as with Harper’s—the trend was toward articles on “The Balance of Military Power,” “What Will India Eat Tomorrow?” and “Mob Justice and Television.” In the late 60’s and early 70’s, The New Yorker lost the vestigial literariness of its graceful cynicism and became earnestly political, fervid in its attacks on Nixon and reverential in its praise for Robert Reich, the Berrigans, and other New Left icons. People continued to buy it largely on the strength of its ads and cartoons. The Saturday Review of Literature began turning away from literature after Norman Cousins became the editor in 1939. As explained in a 1957 anthology of the magazine’s best work since its inception, Cousins’ editorial policy was premised on the belief that “the Great Depression and the growing threat of World War II had intervened between 1939 and that earlier, perhaps happier day when purely literary matters had been clearly at the center of the responsible citizen’s concern with the state of his civilization.” Literature, the SRL editors believed, had been “pushed from the center to the periphery” and books were now “read less because one thinks of them as literature than for the sake of their immediate relevance to social or political or moral attitudes.” And so, instead of bucking these trends, the magazine shortened its name to simply the Saturday Review and began replacing its articles on Gogol, Coleridge, and Camus with discussions of American-Soviet relations, passport policies, and Dewey’s educational philosophy. The editorial strategy failed anyway. After a short venture in the early 70’s as the Saturday Review/World, the magazine collapsed in 1982. Resurrected in 1983 under the editorship of Frank Gannon, the Review has left its literary past far behind. Attention to literature is now confined to a short book review section, while the magazine devotes its attention to the “aspects of the eternal” illuminated by Dick Cavett, Tom Selleck, and Kathleen Turner.
Looking back over the flight of American journals from literature into politics, sociology, and pop culture, a contemporary reader may suppose—a la McLuhan—that the medium of large-scale journalism was never truly compatible with literary excellence and that the advent of television made storytelling in print no longer feasible anyway. It may also be argued that earth-shaking economic, political, and social events did make literature seem increasingly irrelevant. But a different and more fundamental perception was offered in a timely 1928 article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Why Literature Declines.” The author, Robert Lynd, concludes: “Literature begins to go to the dogs as soon as Earth becomes restive and declares its independence of Heaven. In the great ages of literature. Earth was, if not a suburb of Heaven, a subject kingdom.” If Lynd is correct, then, returning literature once again to a place of national prominence will take more than a few editorial meetings. It will require that large numbers of Americans again embrace a sounder metaphysics than that celebrated in The New Yorker or The Atlantic.