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The Betrayal at the Heart of Time Magazine
Posted on Oct 10, 2006
Truthdig: Given that you were an editor of the Yale Daily News, you were obviously already intimately interested in this topic. Did you fear that this wouldn’t appeal to more than a very narrow band of readers who are already familiar with the Ivy League, Skull and Bones, and institutions like those?
Wilner: I always thought it would appeal so much to everybody because it appealed so much to me. I guess I was a little nave, kind of the way Hadden was nave. He didn’t come up with Time because this was something that would appeal to millions of people. He came up with Time because it was the type of magazine he wanted to read. He saw the news in terms of personalities, and he wrote it in terms of personalities. I felt it was an interesting story. And especially when I started reading the oral-history reminiscences of Hadden, and I started reading about how self-destructive he was and how attractive he was to the people around him, and how much he influenced all his friends since the early days of prep school. He struck me as a cinematic personality—somebody who was larger than life.
So that grabbed me, and then about a year into the project, I interviewed Hank Luce, and he gave me access to the Luce papers, and I was just blown away by how brilliant Luce was, and how hard-working, what an astonishing childhood he had in China, with being sent away to this cruel boarding school at the age of 10, how he had willed himself to cure his stutter, and how he was always moving onward and upward. His will to power was remarkable. So the contrast between the natural and the arriviste was fascinating to me. I also think Hadden and Luce, even though they were the elite of the elite, that didn’t stop them from coming up with an idea that they felt would strengthen American democracy. So they came from an elite background, and perhaps it was an elitist notion that they were going to shine a light for the common man, but they were interested in serving the public, so I felt like, it’s our story, too. It’s the story of these elite men, but it’s also the story of how all of us, middle-class Americans, came to tell stories about the world in the way that we do. How we came to be so interested in the news, how we came to consider the news a form of entertainment.
Also, it’s the story of the rising middle class. We can look back on that period of American history and it always impressed me when I started reading the letters that people from the Midwest and the Western states would write Time; Hadden was shocked when he started receiving these letters. Oh my God, people are actually reading this thing we’re putting out. And not only reading it, but they were learning from it, they were attracted by it, they were beginning to write in his style in order to imitate him and join the elite circle of the young and the urbane. So that impressed me: the fact that the middle class of the 1920s was so upwardly mobile. It seems like something we’ve lost.
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Wilner: It seems like people today don’t want to learn all the news from around the world. We have so many entertainment options, and we’re reading the news all the time; we’re just inundated by information, and so it doesn’t seem as though the middle class today is as eager to climb upward and belong in American society.
That was a remarkable aspect of the 1920s. Film was new, radio was new, fashions were spreading, and a national conversation was just beginning to take place. And all across America, people whose parents had grown up on the farms, people who were the first in their families to attend college, wanted to join this conversation. They wanted to know what was happening in the world, and Time was an easy place where they could figure it all out quickly. It was a way for upwardly mobile people to become more knowledgeable and sophisticated than they were.
Today, the middle class seems downwardly mobile. For example, we frown on intellectualism. Presidential candidates would never want to appear intellectual. Whereas at that time, people wanted to be intellectual. And that’s why they liked Time, because it was fairly easy reading, but they would always learn something: a new word, they would get out their dictionaries to learn words Hadden was using. Can you imagine? They used the dictionary. We don’t do that today. It was the birth of a national literary culture.
Truthdig: Your book is predicated on the fact that what Time did was very significant for modern journalism. But your book is also coming out at the very moment when many people are questioning the relevance of a newsweekly in the age of the Internet. Was that a concern?
So it does seem as though America is no longer united by a national story line, except for one thing: 9/11. We’re pulled together by the most epic and tragic event that defines our time, but other than that, our country is pulling apart. We’re all running in different directions. It’s a scary thing. And this is what Hadden was inspired by: Hadden was inspired by Homer and the idea that the Iliad, because it personified the past, the epic past of the Ancient Greeks, it was the national story line. Parts of the story would be related orally around a campfire, and that’s what Hadden wanted to become: a bard for our time—someone who could almost sing to this country the history of the nation. We’ve lost our ability to do that.
And what I’m trying to do is to still make an academic contribution, still bring forward original research, but tell it in a way that can reach everybody. Because I think we need books, magazines and TV shows that bring everybody together and sing the big themes.
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