- Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741–1860 by Heather A. Haveman
On September 23, 2017, the New York Times published Sydney Ember and Michael M. Grynbaum’s “The Not-So-Glossy Future of Magazines,” which warns that American magazines are an endangered species. Faced with competition from Facebook, Google, and other online entities, magazines are seeing a steady erosion in advertising dollars and paid subscriptions. Searching for “new revenue streams,” publishers are experimenting with a variety of nonprint ventures, including “live events, podcasts, video, and partnerships with outside brands.” Consequently, the authors warn, “the longtime core of the business—the print product—is an afterthought.” Veteran editor Kurt Anderson predicts that magazines will become obsolete, rather like “sailboats. They don’t need to exist anymore. But people will still love them, and make them and buy them.”
But on October 10, 2017, two weeks after the Times piece appeared, the New Yorker published (online) Ronan Farrow’s brilliant exposé “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories.” A similar magazine-length story by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey appeared in the New York Times on October 6, 2017. In calling attention to widespread patterns of sexual assault, these essays have had a profound impact on our culture. What had been tolerated and hidden could now be condemned. The October 15, 2017, Times Magazine article “Kids Who Can’t,” Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s exploration of the epidemic of crippling anxiety among teenagers, also had national impact, as my wife and I (both Virginians) discovered on a recent trip to Boston. While waiting for transportation at the airport, we met a Stanford law professor and quickly fell into an intense conversation about the difficulties faced by teenagers these days, with Denizet-Lewis’s article serving as the jumping-off place. If magazines continue to provoke national conversations about substantive issues, they will have a vital—if not glossy—future. They help bring this heterogeneous nation together.
In Magazines and the Making of America, Heather A. Haveman amply documents that magazines have served this function since 1741: without magazines, she convincingly demonstrates, there would be no America. Haveman’s book is based on the most extensive quantitative research ever undertaken on American periodicals. A professor of sociology and business at the University of California, Berkeley, Havemen has gathered original data from some 5,362 magazines published between 1741 and 1860, including religious, business, reform, legal, literary, general interest, scientific, and medical publications. In bringing together individuals with similar interests, Haveman argues, these periodicals helped to create a [End Page 187] cohesive national identity. A dynamic magazine industry became essential in the processes of nation building and modernization.
Drawing from the political theorist Karl Deutsch, Haveman argues that “There can be no society, no division of labor, without a minimum of transfer of information, without communication”; magazines in America allowed “readers to receive and react to the same cultural messages at the same time and, in many cases, encouraging readers to contribute to shared cultural projects” (5). They became vehicles for modernization in six domains: economic, demographic, geographic, social, technological, and cultural. With the exception of the South, magazines served an essential educational function in teaching Americans to embrace change, rather than fear it. Haveman thoroughly examines such areas as editorial control, the mechanics of production and distribution, the recruitment of authors, the development of specialization, and technological advancement. As Americans spread out across the continent, magazines reached an ever wider readership, at an ever lower cost. One of the most useful features of this book is the use of graphs and tables to display the complex information on which such claims rely. One graph, for example, demonstrates the growth of business magazines plotted against their publication location and shows that Boston, New York, and Philadelphia remained the nation’s business publishing centers, even as there was growth in “other urban areas” (75).
Haveman reminds us that...