Monday, May 28, 2012

History Hardly Seems So Simple: My Review of The Man Time Forgot

The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time MagazineThe Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine by Isaiah Wilner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"They were all under thirty with no idea of what they had yet to learn. To hell with it--they simply scrawled, smoking cigarettes, chewing gum, guffawing when they got in a a good line. They wore British tweeds to the office; the smart dressers wore derbies and carried canes. Their style of dress revealed their attitude toward reporting. In those clothes, they would never go muckraking in the streets. They viewed themselves as storytellers, not hunting down the facts but culling and arranging them, shaping the narrative, painting the big picture."

I've occasionally heard it said that you know a story has played out when you read it in Time magazine. There are, I suppose, two ways of interpreting that: (1) Time is slow, always the last to the table when news breaks; (2) Time is magisterial, always offering the last word on a subject. I don't know about the magisterial side, but whatever Time is, it isn't slow--at least if you take into consideration the manic, caffeinated editorial process described in Isaiah Wilner's The Man Time Forgot. The freneticism that went into each issue of the fledgling magazine in the 1920s is exhausting to read unless you have the metabolism and ambition of a Jazz-Age post-graduate. Hours on end, line-editing against a ticking clock to a cacophonous soundtrack of linotype and agitation, subsisting on coffee and bootleg liquor and egg sandwiches, every week Briton Hadden, Henry Luce and their team of writers, editors and "boys" and "girls" would re-present the news. The Man Time Forgot makes the provocative (and probably largely accurate) claim that this whole thing was Hadden's idea, that Luce was an early adopter and shrewd interloper, and that Time's corporate history is marred by a profound lack of appreciation and a pathetic will to power.

History hardly seems so simple, but such is the nature of Time's editorial approach, at least in the early days. Hadden's main innovation was the notion that news had become arcane, the province of only the already-informed; as a result journalism had not only betrayed its responsibility to the whole citizenry but also lost its luster. Time took the news of the week and refashioned it into epic storytelling--spartan in detail but lush with imagery, determining what one needed to know but making every detail memorable. News changed irrevocably in the aftermath of "Timestyle," what we now know as simply "style." What McDonald's was to food, Time was to news.

Perhaps that's too harsh. That's not Wilner's point in this book, in any case, but I found myself questioning the greatness of the enterprise throughout the book. Wilner himself writes in Timestyle, crafting an occasionally purplish prose and indulging the Great Man theory that makes reporting like Time's possible.

It was important for Hadden and Luce to follow the rules of the epic in how they conveyed the news. There were heroes of fixed chin and furrowed brow; there were villains of nefarious stare and wicked grin. There were bilious buffoons and fair-eyed femme fatales. The players were the thing wherein you got the gist of the story. Hadden had this idea from childhood, ostensibly, and it took fuller shape during his time at Yale, where he befriended and ultimately conspired with Luce, the lesser light, to change the way people learned what they needed to know. Luce, the son of missionaries and a light-footed,vexing aristocrat, found himself always in the shadows, nipping at the heels and riding the coattails of the expansive, burly and larger-than-life Hadden, friend to all but servant to none. It's obvious, given the pictures Wilner paints of each of these figures, who is this epic's hero and who is its villain. If you will pardon the reference to a recent pop-culture phenomenon, Hadden is Thor, and Luce is Loki.

As I said, history hardly seems so simple, and Wilner does offer the occasional nod to Luce's particular genius. Time under Hadden alone would have been a frat-boy anarchist's playful thumbing of the nose to his preferred industry, a subversive pet project that would not have survived long into Hadden's thirties (Hadden himself died at age thirty-one). It was Luce's more detached and methodical mind (as well as his Napoleonic ambition) that fueled the magazine's growth and ultimate cementing as a magazine of record. Thirty-five years later it was Luce who was able to gather in one room the Great Men and Women of American culture, honored over the decades under his editorial gaze as shapers of the century, all of whom were happy to in turn acknowledge the importance of Time as the archiver of history, the last word on every subject. But every epic needs a villain, in the mindset of Timestyle, and for Wilner Luce clearly fits the bill.

What I'm more intrigued by--and perhaps such a book has been written--is the unintended consequence of Timestyle on the American consciousness. The problem with diagnosing a chronic problem of societal ignorance is that it is sometimes hard to tell the poison from the cure. Time under Hadden's watch and successively under Luce accomplished a great thing by making a whole nation more aware of what was happening in the world, but it did so by reducing historical figures to their physical attributes and reducing conflicts from their inherent complexity to digestible levels of right and wrong. In the beginning, Time did no original reporting; it cut and pasted and aggregated and stole and plagiarized and rewrote with only passing concern for facticity. In the beginning, Time was not a sponsor of journalism but a referendum on the work of reporters around the country. Hadden wasn't a student of the Chicago Manual of Style so much as he was a disciple of the Iliad; he kept it at his desk and referred his writers to it regularly. This appeal to the epic unconsciously perpetuated the Cult of the Great Man, which ultimately contributed to our current cult of celebrity and feeds into the nagging suspicion among many that we are less informed today than ever. Long before Google made us stupid (Google it), it seems, the magisterial Time magazine was making us reductionists.

Perhaps that's too harsh an indictment. But the weaknesses I see in Time's original editorial vision, in Timestyle's editorial approach, is apparent in this book: a hagiographical treatment of the tragic-comic Thor/Hadden and a cynical send-up of the devious, swindling Loki/Luce. It's a good read for any editor, a cautionary tale of both the thirst for power and the shadow side of creativity, but I hope it's not the final word on Time's legacy.

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