U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Review of Robert Vanderlan, INTELLECTUALS INCORPORATED: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce’s Media Empire

Robert Vanderlan, Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce’s Media Empire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)

About a third of the way into Robert Vanderlan’s important study of intellectuals who worked for Time Inc., one encounters the heroic Archibald MacLeish. Frankly, we don’t hear much about MacLeish these days—perhaps we should. At least Vanderlan makes a persuasive case to take MacLeish seriously, not merely because of his versatility—as an editor for Fortune, a poet, playwright, essayist, and Librarian of Congress—but because he asked a question that echoes in my ears today. In 1940, as Europe descended into the most horrific war in human history, MacLeish gave an address he entitled, “The Irresponsibles.” As Vanderlan writes, MacLeish began “with a question he feared would be asked by historians in the future as they worked ‘in the paper rubbish of our lives.’ Why did scholars and writers in the United States, ‘witnesses as they were to the destruction of writing and of scholarship in great areas of Europe,’ and ‘to the exile and the imprisonment and murder’ of writers and scholars, not react more forcefully to the danger?” (131) MacLeish’s answer: because intellectuals had retreated into themselves, their professions, their craft, their minds; and while many aspired to great, long-lasting works, most settled comfortably (far too comfortably for MacLeish) into the “organization of intellectual life in our time.”

This essay of MacLeish’s captures much that is vital to Vanderlan’s study. Vanderlan’s subjects are the intellectuals who Henry Luce courted and lost while building his media empire. But the moral of this story is the way intellectuals attempted to manipulate and often got manipulated by the organizational structure of corporate media. Men (and this story is almost solely about men) of huge talent—Dwight Macdonald, James Agee, MacLeish, John Hershey, Walker Evans, among others—came to work for Luce and produced great work both for and in opposition to Time Inc. The specter of the Organization Man (to use the title of book from another Luce employee, William H. Whyte) hangs over the drama that Vanderlan chronicles. Was it possible to be an intellectual and work for Luce—was there such a thing, Vanderlan suggests, as intellectuals incorporated? In this sense, MacLeish was the archetypal Time Inc. intellectual: he aspired to more than he was—bred as so many of these figures were in the best the schools—but found a home in Luce’s empire where he had considerable freedom to write, not for himself though, but for a salary that was better than anything he could make on his own. And so, MacLeish’s declaration that his intellectual compatriots were irresponsible reflected not merely the sort of timeless question he asked about the obligation intellectuals have in times of war, but also the more immediate experience MacLeish had as part of a media empire that provided him with maximum exposure. Yet, the MacLeish essay that Vanderlan profiles so nicely was written outside of Time Inc. Intellectuals might have been incorporated by Luce, but it was their moonlighting that gave them integrity.

That pattern repeated itself down through the years: Macdonald had to leave Fortune in order to write the essays that made him America’s most significant mid-century critic; James Agee famously pulled his work from a Fortune assignment (after it had been summarily rejected) and turned into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; John Hershey wrote his most brilliant work for the New Yorker, not for Time or Life, much to Luce’s chagrin; and William H. Whyte, while writing for Fortune about corporate organization, from within a large corporate organization, produced The Organization Man outside the corporate organization. Vanderlan profiles these duel and even dueling careers of many Time Inc. intellectuals by writing mini-biographies that at times don’t have much to say about their work for Luce. It is a fair device overall, for Vanderlan provides a nuanced description of the tension that many of these writers felt when going into the employ of Luce. Moreover, by providing the broader context in which these writers worked, Vanderlan is also able to give a nuanced rebuttal to the contention that working for “the man” spelled death to the intellectual.

Clearly, the contention that intellectuals must categorically reject mass media in order to be true to themselves propelled Vanderlan to undertake this study and it is the foundation on which he builds profiles of his three most significant subjects: Macdonald, MacLeish, and Agee. However, they were quite different: whereas MacLeish was the archetype of the Time Inc. intellectual, Macdonald was—he never tired of declaring—its opposite. Macdonald, it seems, spent half of his time writing against the implications of mass media, even while working within the Luce empire. For example, Macdonald thrashed the position MacLeish took in “The Irresponsibles” as the stance of a reactionary who wanted to “impose on the writer from outside certain socio-political values, and to provide a rationalization for damning his work esthetically if it fails to conform to these social values.” (131) Here was a version of what would become Macdonald’s strident condemnation of what passed for “official culture” in mid-century America. In “Masscult and Midcult,” Macdonald singled out MacLeish’s work as nothing more than a fraudulent form of discourse. While much has been written about Macdonald’s struggle to create a truly independent and viable position for the intellectual in American society, Vanderlan’s study illustrates that Macdonald’s time as a writer for Fortune provided a significant touchstone for this later struggle. “His former belief that he could work toward his convictions through the pages of Luce’s magazines,” Vanderlan writes, “became so untenable to him that he no longer recalled his efforts. He now described his Fortune years as act of ‘selling out,’ as years spent as a ‘hack in Luce’s stables.’ He claimed he was ‘tempted, morally, to keep selling out’—the money was good, he noted, ‘…but it had become neurologically impossible.’” (155)

Macdonald’s condemnation of mass media and work done at their behest has been so sweeping that, according to Vanderlan, it has ruined the legacy of MacLeish and ultimately undermined our understanding of James Agee. Vanderlan provides a relatively brief but interesting portrait of Agee as a writer who, no doubt, struggled with his own demons, but who, because of those internal demons, seemed better able to operate at Time Inc. by imagining that he could, as John Hershey observed, “set truth free in what he saw as the headquarters of lying.” Vanderlan uses that passage to great effect at the end of his discussion of Agee’s trials writing about the Great Depression for Fortune. Agee “spent most of his writing life working for Time Inc.,” Vanderlan notes, and “produced writing of stunning complexity for mass-circulation magazines.” “Indeed,” Vanderlan concludes, “in Famous Men he turned those obstacles into a profound meditation on the nature of journalism and art, moving far beyond the simple hope that journalism and poetry could enrich each other that prevailed among intellectuals at Time Inc.” Agee was the archangel of Luce’s mass media netherworld.

Agee was also the last of a generation that wrestled with or perhaps could wrestle with the competing demands of art and organization within Time Inc. We have spent a good amount of space at the USIH blog dissecting neo-liberalism. Vanderlan’s discussion of the origins and intellectual arc of Fortune provides a decent portrait of the abdication of intellectuals to the ethos of the market. His chapters on the contradictory positions taken by Fortune’s editors and writers make for fascinating reading—if only because one cannot imagine such conflicts taking place at any of the leading business journals today. One of the most revealing sections of the story, though, comes near the end of Vanderlan’s book in his discussion of William H. Whyte’s first big break at Fortune writing a profile of the 1949 graduating class at Yale. Yale’s president trumpeted that the class of 1949 (the “greatest generation”) was the “best class ever.” What Whyte found was something quite different: “In the wake of the Depression and the world war, with many attending school after leaving the military, Whyte found the class of ’49 had been ‘conditioned to organization,’ and to them ‘big business means security.’ The fear of risk and worship of safety shocked Whyte, who wondered if the new generation of graduates would ‘be so intent on achieving.’” This glimpse into America’s next elite set Whyte on a course to investigate business communication, the free enterprise campaigns of the 1940s, and, of course, the pressures to conform to values dictated by a benighted corporate structure. There is something brilliant and tragic in Vanderlan’s discussion of Whyte because one can see the last vestiges of a community willing to reflect on itself in light of imperatives and values larger than its own self-interests. Sure we will hear about the philanthropy of our moguls, but as a recent essay in the Atlantic pointed out, such largess seems to appear only after one has amassed an utterly obscene fortune; for those making the pittance of $10 or $20 million, the only obligation worth pursuing is a tax shelter.

Vanderlan ranges widely through the mid-century years of Time Inc. and through the lives and work of the notable intellectuals who labored within it. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Luce himself plays a minor role in this story. Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Luce of course tells us far more about the man who saw himself as both an intellectual as well as an entrepreneur. But perhaps using Luce as anything more than a foil for the intellectuals at the center of this book would have pulled Vanderlan too deeply into the internal mechanics of Time Inc. (though, my copy of the books doesn’t even list Henry Luce in the index). Instead, this book is very much a history of the ideas that moved the editors and writers of Time Inc. and the competition among ideas that made some of these intellectuals into icons.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I taught a historical methods course at MSU around James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. We looked at it in two ways–one, developing historical questions based on it as a primary source and two, using it as a reflection on the research process (particularly Agee’s worry over insider/outsider dilemmas and Walker Evan’s nonchalance over the same thing).

    I’m now considering updating that course for a senior seminar I’m teaching next semester. I’m trying to decide whether or not to assign this whole text (or maybe just the chapter on Agee) for the section of the class that talks about how working at Fortune influenced Agee.

    At the same time, I’m teaching a survey course on US Intellectual History in the spring and thought this might make an interesting text for some of the questions about the change in intellectual culture in the US as most of them went into corporations or academia. I’m not sure how well it works to assign large monographs in undergrad classes?

    Do you have any suggestions for me Ray?


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