- Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce's Media Empire
The relationship between American intellectuals and their government has ranged from active participation (Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) to critical detachment (Randolph Bourne and Noam Chomsky). But because few members of the intelligentsia have been truly free-floating, historians have rightly tended to examine how ideas have ricocheted among the personnel within various institutions, such as academe. The expanded scope of intellectual history has portrayed the social settings, the organizational purposes and constraints, and the interpersonal dynamics that affect the evolution of thought. Time Inc. is therefore an ideal subject for scrutiny. The publishing behemoth that Henry R. Luce built was bound to register the tension between the commercial imperatives of mass journalism and the struggle to represent reality that challenges serious thinkers and writers. Luce wanted to educate and uplift, and Intellectuals Incorporated pays tribute to the vision that led him to co-found Time and then to create Fortune and Life. That his motives were far from crass is evident in the talent that he attracted—Archibald MacLeish, James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, et al. That Republican partisanship did not utterly distort Luce's journalistic judgment is also apparent. Daniel Bell, a lifelong "socialist in economics," covered the labor movement for Fortune, the magazine that John Kenneth Galbraith credited with teaching him how to write (a skill that Luce later regretted having imparted to the lifelong liberal Democrat).
Vanderlan's is an ambitious, thorough, and well-researched work that generally gives high marks to the magazines that reached millions of American families from the 1920s through the 1950s (when his account ends), though the actual political and cultural influence of Time Inc. remains elusive. What especially intrigue the author are the conditions of the workplace. Could Pulitzer Prize-winning poets and novelists (like MacLeish and Agee) satisfy the demands of meeting deadlines in order to elucidate the Great Depression, for instance, and still nurture their literary gift after hours? Could astute foreign correspondents like John Hersey and Theodore White sneak the truth about our Chinese allies' corruption and cruelty past editors like Whittaker Chambers? In answering such questions, Intellectuals Incorporated is careful to explore each case, wary of presenting one-size-fits-all generalizations stretching over four decades of what Luce hailed as "the American Century." To be sure, [End Page 483] bitterness at editorial interference was constant, and the allure of high salaries as the reward for merely middle-brow writing might induce guilt and even self-loathing. But Luce respected the exercise of intelligence; he could even ignore Madame Chiang K'ai-shek's insistence that White be fired. Had Vanderlan done some comparative history (by noting the pedantry of higher education and the pieties of Hollywood as alternatives to Time Inc.), his case would have been even stronger.
His book also suffers from too schematic a structure, pitting a "media empire" against the intellectuals whom it employed; a few of them, like Agee and the photographer Walker Evans, were more artists than intellectuals. The most notorious conflicts that rippled through the organization did not pivot on the autonomy that "intellectuals," pursuing the implications of their ideas, are supposed to prize. Rather, the friction was political. For example, even if Hersey and White had been less cerebral, a collision with their boss, a Chinese-born son of missionaries, was inevitable. That these two journalistic critics of Chiang's regime would become ornaments of American public culture is irrelevant. Such are the implications of the evidence that Vanderlan scrupulously presents.