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  • The Popular Front in the American Century:Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Consumer Realism, 1936-1941
  • Chris Vials (bio)

By early 1941, Henry Luce commanded a media empire with an unprecedented reach—and it had become clear to many that his success had finally gone to his head. His first magazine, Time, founded along with partner Briton Hadden in 1923, had revolutionized the news magazine by developing a narrative mode of news reportage covering its subjects with both wit and concision. Time, with its unprecedented short news-stories aimed at "the man on the go," quickly eclipsed its stodgy, genteel rival The Literary Digest and established Luce as a public figure. Fortune, begun in 1930, extended his influence by providing a highly affluent readership with a more in-depth and even intellectual magazine of business and world affairs. And with the March of Time radio program and newsreel, founded in 1931 and 1935 respectively, Luce's reach extended into exciting new media. But ultimately, it was an innovative picture magazine—Life—that took his company Time, Inc. to new heights after it first appeared in November 1936. Whereas Time's readership had been approximately 780,000 in 1939, and Fortune's much smaller—around 130,000 in the same year—Life's circulation was truly startling to contemporaries. By 1940, it had a circulation of 2.86 million and a high "pass along rate," multiplying its actual readership.1 With his influence now firmly secured, Luce began to see himself as a man of destiny, imbued with both the power and the responsibility to mold the national mind single-handedly. Though he certainly had laid claim to such powers before, many contemporaries saw Luce's ego spinning out of control with Life's success. A Time staff member recalled that he "began to entertain the delusion common among press lords: that he could control and direct the enormous influence his magazines exerted on public taste."2 [End Page 74]

With his newfound sense of purpose, Luce sat down to write his famous editorial, "The American Century," in February 1941. This essay synthesized Luce's conservative political project in what came to be the most influential essay of his career. Breaking through the contemporary political dichotomy over foreign policy that pitted a conservative isolationism against a leftist internationalism, Luce articulated an expanded leadership role for the United States that could be dubbed a conservative internationalism. The United States had a mission to assume world leadership, he wrote, a mission that most Americans had yet to realize. This mission involved the spreading of American ideals of freedom and democracy around the globe, and differed from the internationalism of both Hitler and the left in that it was based on "freedom and democracy" rather than "one-man rule." But this internationalism would not be grounded on politics or military might alone, but on a more subtle level—on the culture of consumption. According to Luce, "Once we cease to distract ourselves with lifeless arguments about isolationism, we shall be amazed to discover that there is already an immense American inter-nationalism. American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common." This essay came to embody corporate America's blueprint for the postwar world. Cultural historian Michael Denning sees it as the manifesto of what he calls "The Advertising Front," a historic bloc of conservative forces opposed to the New Deal and the left mass movement, the Popular Front.3

But this imperial consumer ethos would not create itself. To Luce, it had to be constructed—and constructed using specific representational strategies. In a speech given at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1937, he had already denounced the prevailing consumer model guiding the media, which he dubbed "Press-that-gives-the-people-what-they-want." To Luce, "Press-that-gives-the-people-what-they-want" was a philosophy employed by media professionals who rewarded a passive, uncritical audience with "vulgarity, tripe, and triviality," consequently leaving audiences open for "the barbarous domination of the mass mind." Luce urged advertisers to instead...


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pp. 74-102
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