- Magazines, Modernity, and the Middle Class
The recent digitization of early-twentieth-century US periodicals by the Hathi Trust, Brown University’s Modernist Journals Project, the American Periodical Series Online, and others has opened up the terrain for scholars of America’s early magazine culture and enabled research that has contextualized the literary and print cultural production of the early twentieth century. However, because digitization is incomplete, it has had the effect of privileging modernist little magazines and serials published before 1907. A valuable selection of modern mass magazines is still not entirely accessible to contemporary scholars, which is unfortunate, given how valuable these periodicals are to our understanding of the aesthetic, social, and economic issues of the first half of the twentieth century.
We should feel great gratitude, then, for the research of scholars like Daniel A. Clark, Amy L. Blair, and Catherine Keyser, whose recent books address in some detail eight popular early-twentieth-century American magazines, several of which are not yet completely digitized. Clark’s Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood 1890–1915 (2010), Blair’s Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States (2012), and Keyser’s Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (2010) collectively explore the cultural work performed by five US monthlies and three US weeklies that were available on newsstands and by subscription between the late 1890s and World War II. During this era, a new, advertising-oriented publishing model promoted magazines that targeted a broad readership attracted to the promise of class mobility, whether that class mobility was understood primarily in terms of economic success or aesthetic sophistication. Genteel nineteenth-century weeklies and monthlies—which later evolved into modern magazines catering [End Page 430] to a more mass readership—like Munsey’s (1889–1929), The Cosmopolitan (1886–), the Saturday Evening Post (1821–), Harper’s Bazaar (1867–), and the Ladies’ Home Journal (1889–); early-twentieth-century muckraking weeklies like Collier’s (1888– 1957); and smart magazines that emerged later in the century, like Vanity Fair (1913–36) and the New Yorker (1925–), all contributed to modern America’s ongoing discussion of class and taste. Furthermore, all provide important evidence of the imprecisions and perils of the term “middlebrow” as a descriptor for the readers, reading strategies, authors, and texts associated with these magazines.
Historian Daniel A. Clark’s Creating the College Man argues that, during the first decade of the twentieth century, broadly circulating affordable national monthlies like Munsey’s and Cosmopolitan and mass weeklies like the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s promoted the value of a college education for upwardly mobile, native-born lower-middle-class white men, the majority of whom came from families without any postsecondary education. By reading editorials, articles, advice columns, short and serialized fiction, and advertisements, along with special issues exclusively devoted to the “college man,” millions of aspiring young men and their families learned about the culture and professional advantages of college life. In the nineteenth century, the dominant male ideal of success was entrepreneurial—the self-made and self-reliant Horatio Alger figure. The college student, by contrast, was troped as effete, lazy, and spoiled—the antithesis of rugged masculinity. However, by the late 1920s, the American male college student would become associated with middle-class cultivation, character, manliness, and leadership, so much so that the avatar of American success became the business leader who moved up through the ranks of the corporation not only because of his scientific know-how and professionalism, but also because of the teamwork ethos he had acquired through the athletic and fraternal culture of college. Although he does not use the term “middlebrow,” Clark’s focus is on the pedagogical function served by accessible texts...