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Evangelist of the American Century

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 329-335 | 10.1353/rah.2011.0078

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Publisher Henry R. Luce was not an easy man to like. Aloof and socially awkward, he had few close friends and often quarreled with his wives and intimate companions. Associates routinely complained about his arrogance and self-righteousness, and his editors came to dread the long, meddlesome memos he would send them in his efforts to exert control over his magazines. Though some Americans admired his achievements—by the 1940s his magazines were the most popular and presumptively influential publications in U.S. history—he was feared and despised by many others, particularly after the Second World War, when he became an ardent Cold Warrior and sought to use his magazines to promote his favorite causes. Hatred of Luce intensified in the 1960s, when he became a symbol of the sinister "establishment" that so many youthful rebels were keen to topple. By the time of his death in 1967, his public image was so skewed it verged on caricature, and the intervening years have done little to soften it.

This makes Alan Brinkley's new biography of Luce all the more welcome. Exhaustively researched, fluently written, and admirably judicious in its conclusions, this book ought to turn the conventional wisdom on its head. While acknowledging Luce's many shortcomings, Brinkley has given us a detailed and thoughtful account of the publisher's significant accomplishments. Better still, he has made it possible for us to see these in context and to recognize Luce's brilliance as a media entrepreneur. The Luce that emerges was a complex, highly flawed man—ambitious, creative, and inquisitive, but also pompous and dogmatic, particularly when it came to issues in which he had an emotional investment. These traits made possible his success, but they also complicated his personal life and encouraged him to do things that tarnished his professional reputation.

Luce was born in 1898 and raised in China, the son of earnest American missionaries. His first glimpse of the U.S. was on a family trip in 1906, and the experience reaffirmed the idealized image of it that he had gleaned from the American magazines that the family read. Being the child of missionaries, Brinkley notes, had a formative influence on Luce. Inspired by the example of his father, who labored tirelessly to raise money for the Christian college where he taught, a task that required frequent trips to the U.S. and separation from his family, young Harry was determined to contribute to the betterment of world.

To further Harry's education, his parents sent him to a boarding school in the port city of Chefoo, and in 1912 he left China for Hotchkiss and then Yale, his father's alma mater. An outsider because of his Chinese upbringing and "conspicuous foreignness," Luce struggled to assimilate and become a social and academic success. At Hotchkiss, he became a contributor and editor of campus publications and befriended Briton Hadden, a cynical and mercurial upper-middle–class New Yorker. Temperamentally dissimilar, yet sharing a common interest in literature and journalism, they became big men on campus and ambitious co-conspirators, developing a partnership that would deepen when they moved on to Yale in 1916. At Yale, Luce displayed the same penchant for achievement that he had demonstrated at Hotchkiss, excelling in classes, writing for and editing the campus newspaper, and gaining election to Skull and Bones, Yale's most exclusive secret society. Yet Luce's years at Yale also made him more self-conscious of his family's modest economic status and encouraged his interest in worldly success and material riches, an ambition he felt embarrassed revealing to his family.

After graduation, Luce and Hadden sought careers in journalism—but not of a conventional sort. Unhappy with the state of the American press, especially the dour New York Times, they hatched a plan to create an entirely new kind of publication: a "weekly newspaper" that would take the dry, tedious "raw material" provided by the daily press and transform it into short, engaging articles, organized by "department," that could be easily digested by harried middle-class consumers. The result was Time. Launched in 1923, it was a hit with readers virtually from the start and became...