Reviewed by Lydia Beyoud
When media mogul Henry Luce published his 1941 essay "The American Century" in Life magazine, long considered an apologia for American exceptionalism and ascendancy over other nations, he had already attained the sort of name recognition today enjoyed by the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Like Murdoch, Luce used his media empire to propagate his personal views and shape the opinions of the American middle class, particularly in matters of politics and foreign policy; and like Murdoch, he was controversial.
In his latest biography The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, historian Alan Brinkley chronicles the remarkable life of this complicated man and his role in the creation of four iconic American magazines: Time, Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated. Brinkley's thoroughly researched work charts the intersections of the man, magazines and world events that were inextricably bound together, leaving the reader inspired by Luce's hard-won success and the author's sense of detail in bringing Luce's story to life.
In 1923, the freshly minted Yale graduate set out with friend Briton Hadden to found Time, a news digest magazine for "the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation." Brinkley writes that "their vision of the magazine was shaped by their sense of inadequacy of existing sources of news" -- sources from which they nevertheless poached stories before rendering them into what became their publication's distinctive "Timese" editorial style.
Despite early hardships, each subsequent magazine proved a success, resulting in an intellectual boredom pushing Luce to pursue new interests, which often made their way to the pages and covers of his publications. Time's tradition of a Man of the Year cover reflected Luce's boyish enthusiasm for great men whom he sought to "draw ... into his orbit" and persuade "to embrace his own emerging beliefs," including Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Luce was born to Presbyterian missionaries stationed in China, and that country's nationalist movement was one of Luce's dearest causes, evidenced by his frequent campaigning for the China Lobby and the 11 portraits of Chiang Kai-shek gracing the covers of Time.
A pertinacious anti-communist and Republican Party leader, Luce also supported unions, civil rights and a skeptical view of capitalism. He was a deeply religious man who nevertheless questioned his beliefs and was a chronic adulterer. While promoting the cause of Nationalist China, Luce's distaste for the Japanese, manifested in the content of his magazines, contributed at least indirectly to the vilification of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Brinkley's previous books focus on great men and moments in the formation of modern 20th-century America. With The Publisher, he explores another sphere of American culture: mass media and its use in shaping public opinion.
For his "American Century" essay, Luce was alternately hailed as a war-monger or a great thinker. Brinkley emphasizes Luce was often perceived, even by himself, as having more influence than he actually did; instead he claims Luce "was most influential ... in promoting ideas that were already emerging among a broad segment of the American population."
While Brinkley writes with the confident voice of an experienced storyteller and the attendant thoroughness and impartiality of a historian of his caliber, his quiet admiration for his subject lies just beneath the surface throughout his account of Henry Luce and his times.
Books mentioned in this post