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  • An Economy of Abundant Beauty: Fortune Magazine and Depression America
  • Brian Phelan
Michael Augspurger. An Economy of Abundant Beauty: Fortune Magazine and Depression America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. viii + 292 pp. ISBN 0-8014-4204-4, $34.95 (cloth).

A curious blend of business and intellectual history, with an emphasis on the latter, Michael Augspurger's An Economy of Abundant Beauty offers a reading of Fortune magazine from its founding in 1930 through the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Distancing himself from other observers of the publication who have interpreted Fortune's heavy coverage of high culture and aesthetics during the 1930s alongside more prosaic business news as the result of a distinct split between a progressive staff of writers, including James Agee and Archibald MacLeish, and more conservative editors and publisher Henry Luce, Augspurger claims to discern a unifying ideology behind the text that illuminates the magazine's context as a whole: Corporate Liberalism.

The story of Fortune from 1930 until 1952 therefore is the story of an idea, as well as the story of a magazine. In addition, it is also the story of class definition, for Augspurger argues that Fortune, along with the smaller magazine Partisan Review, offered alternate identities for the new and evolving professional classes. Throughout the period, Augspurger contends, Fortune offered a vision of the professional that was essentially affirmative; that is to say, an identity that validated the dominance and beneficence of modern organized capitalism and American culture. The writers at Partisan Review, including public intellectuals like Philip Rahv and Dwight MacDonald, on the other hand, posited the professional as adversarial by criticizing mass culture and corporate rule and urging the preservation of the high arts from contamination by placing them in the care of an elite corps of critics and intellectuals. Whereas Fortune had during the 1930s urged business professionals to embrace art and aesthetics, by the 1950s it had ceded the cultural realm to professional critics, which contributed in turn to the disentanglement of the elite arts from progressive politics, which had animated American culture in the 1930s.

Augspurger adopts the term "Corporate Liberalism" from scholars such as Gabriel Kolko and Martin Sklar but admits that it is a "slippery phrase," and his usage, by his own admission, is more in line with "business associationalism" as described by Ellis Hawley and Louis Galambos. Augspurger's Corporate Liberalism is defined by an acceptance of the existence and beneficence of large corporations as leading actors in the American economy; a commitment to economic [End Page 542] growth and efficiency through the application of reason and science; the acceptance, to a variable extent, on the part of big business of both organized labor and government regulation; and, crucial to Augspurger's argument, the self-identification of business professionals as wise and well-rounded community leaders. This last point is the linchpin of Augspurger's reading of Fortune in the 1930s, for it explains the magazine's seemingly unrelated foci on corporations and aesthetics. Both, Augspurger avers, were directed at Fortune's target audience of business professionals: first, they had to keep abreast of the latest in scientific management and corporate innovation, but, second, they also needed to be well versed in the arts because, in their roles as servants to the public, they were also responsible for assimilating and preserving cultural standards. Fortune's depiction of the businessman as cultural steward of the high arts was especially pronounced in the early years of the Depression. As the economic crisis deepened, however, Fortune's cultural coverage became more inclusive, discovering what Augspurger calls "consensus pluralism" and publicizing not just the goings-on in corporate boardrooms but also the plights of the urban unemployed and African American sharecroppers. Wading into the scholarly debate over the nature of American culture during the 1930s (Mickey Mouse or the Popular Front?), Augspurger explicitly allies himself with Michael Denning and other scholars who have emphasized the left-leaning tenor of the period. While Fortune's politics may have drifted to the right in opposition to an expanded role for the national state in the economy following the collapse of the National Recovery Administration...


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