How Magazines Reflected and Shaped the Country’s Politics and Culture

From a Wall Street Journal review by Edward Rothstein headlined “Magazines and the American experience”:

Nearly 45 years ago, when Woody Allen joked in “Annie Hall” about the magazines Dissent and Commentary merging to form Dysentery, he could be certain that viewers would catch his dyspeptic allusion to intellectual publications with opposing politics. That’s how familiarly magazines—even high-brow magazines—were bound to American politics and culture. They were embodiments of beliefs and attitudes and principles, creating communities of writers and readers. A magazine could define identity or taste. Mr. Allen’s character in “Bananas” famously entered a magazine store—remember them?—trying to camouflage his interest in a skin mag (Orgasm) by also purchasing Saturday Review and Commentary….Public demonstrations of allegiance, taste and status now have other outlets.

But if you want to understand magazines’ erstwhile power, schedule a visit to the Grolier Club by April 24 to see “Magazines and the American Experience: Highlights From the Collection of Steven Lomazow, M.D.” On display are some 200 American magazines from Dr. Lomazow’s collection of 83,000. Examples range from a 1733 issue of the New-York Weekly Journal, in which John Peter Zenger argued for freedom of the press before suffering prosecution for its practice, to a 2016 issue of the New Yorker with two cover illustrations that would become an animation when seen through a phone app….

The show doesn’t really define its subject, but the very word “magazine” is suggestive, combining both intimations of stored weaponry and (in its French roots) another kind of store, full of commercial possibility. Magazines are also inevitably personal: You pay for the privilege of engaging in the magazine’s battles, relishing its promised offerings. This exhibition is a version of the once-thriving magazine emporiums that offered the browsing customer a choice of customized experiences. It intersperses a history with surveys of baseball, African-American culture, artists as illustrators, science, pulp fiction and humor.

The “first successful American magazine,” we are told, was the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle published by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia—successful because it lasted from 1743 to 1746 when most early publications eked out little more than a Volume 1. Here, too, is the Pennsylvania Magazine: or, American Monthly Museum. Its editor, Thomas Paine, ran an energetic miscellany of material. The final issue, in July 1776, included the only contemporary magazine printing of the Declaration of Independence….

Later come publications like the Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Religion (1840-44), edited by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson —a foundation of American transcendentalism. And Frederick Douglass’s eponymous publications—Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly—a foundation for a century of African-American magazines….

Magazines left no area of American life untouched, including fashion (Vogue was founded in 1892 to “celebrate the ceremonial side of life”) and science fiction (a term coined by publisher Hugo Gernsback in the August 1923 issue of Science and Invention). The first issue of Life is here (Nov. 23, 1936) and a half-century of examples of stunning graphic design, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1937 cover of Town & Country, and of his own magazine, Taliesin, from 1940. Norman Rockwell, too, takes a bow: Dr. Lomazow has collected all 321 covers he created for the Saturday Evening Post.

What is missing? Perhaps a suggestion of how American magazines evolved out of British models, like Addison and Steele’s Spectator. And what about the genre we began with—intellectual publications like Partisan Review, Dissent or Commentary, influential beyond their numbers? Or Martin Peretz’s New Republic? Or the New York Review of Books? Perhaps each reader or collector (or writer) would make a different selection—which may be evidence of just how strong this survey is, and how much hope remains that its epitaph is premature.

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