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DISCARDED LEDE FOR AN OBITUARY OF ‘BOOKFORUM’
And the boy who loved magazines
I wrote this lede for a piece on the end of Bookforum in December:
As is the case with people or buildings, the lives of magazines can be short and glorious or long and twisted. (It’s true too that they may adhere to any variation of length and quality in between, including the default, regular-size and boring, but that’s not my concern here.) In 1923, H.L. Mencken and his colleague, the drama critic George Jean Nathan, left their co-editorship of The Smart Set after the magazine’s owner, Eltindge Warner, objected to a satirical piece they planned to run about President Warren G. Harding’s funeral. The magazine’s printers were scandalized and had informed Warner of the piece. Warner, who usually took a hands-off approach to publishing, allowing his editors complete creative control, called it “treason” and announced his intention to sell the magazine. Sensing their fun was over Mencken and Nathan left to set up The American Mercury under the sponsorship of their shared book publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Sr. Warner sold The Smart Set to William Randolph Hearst, the magazine went into decline, and Hearst closed it in 1930 after the stock market crash. Of The Smart Set under Mencken and Nathan, the critic Louis Kronenberger wrote in 1934: “you knew that it was teaching a literary America that went about on all fours how to walk.”
With The American Mercury, Mencken and Nathan had an instant hit. Mencken described his intentions for the new magazine in a letter to Theodore Dreiser: “What we need is something that looks highly respectable outwardly. The American Mercury is almost perfect for that purpose. What will go on inside the tent is another story. You will recall that the late P.T. Barnum got away with burlesque shows by calling them moral lectures.” Irreverence under the cover of respectability, contempt for the “booboisie” (Mencken’s term for the U.S. middle class), critics in search of beauty in contemporary culture and dealing out scorn for what fell short—these were the ideals of Mencken and Nathan’s magazines, and they published the best talent available in their day: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Eugene O’Neill. Menken retired from the editorship in 1933, but the magazine lived on. However, by 1950 it was in conservative hands. In 1952, it was sold to Russell Maguire, owner of the company that manufactured the Thompson submachine gun (aka the Tommy gun), and from there it was a short journey to “the fever swamps of anti-Semitism,” as National Review publisher William A. Rusher put it. The magazine survived until 1981, by which time it had published the future head of the American Nazi Party, bemoaned the “the virus of social, racial, and sexual equality" overtaking the American mind, and mourned the death of Adolph Hitler. Sometimes magazines deserve to die. Such was not the case with Bookforum.
Today the essay has been published in a highly different form in the Washington Post. The piece is paywalled (sorry, I can’t read it either), but here’s a taste:
I was the boy who loved magazines. At home, my parents would confiscate the copies of Mad, Ray Gun and Spin that came in the mail, forbidding me from so much as looking at them until I finished my homework. My appetite for glossy pictures, for clever cartoons, for punning prose — for all the intelligence I couldn’t find in my small town or on television — had to be suppressed, lest I fail out of school. (So thought my mother.) Even now, the arrival of the latest issue of the Baffler or New Left Review feels like an event: a new vision of the world as seen by many minds, wedged between two covers.
But the American magazine is in a state of decay. Now known mostly as brands, once sumptuous print publications exist primarily as websites or YouTube channels, hosts for generic scribblings, the ever-ubiquitous “take.” Meanwhile, a thousand Substacks bloom, some of them very good, with writers in the emancipated state of being paid directly by their readers. Yet even in this atomized, editorless landscape, perverse incentives apply. Are you thirsty for another post about cancel culture or wokeness? Me neither. Yet culture war still largely rules the day.
The rest is here.