Thursday, August 20, 2009

Difficult to Digest

My number one son Richard, the formidable blogmeister of “A Brooklynite on the Ice,” drew my attention to what he thought may be a blogable item for a geezer like me in the form of an AP story headed “Chapter 11 Plan Cedes Reader’s Digest to Lenders”. From his point of view the story has to do with the preposterous nonchalance with which American corporations now file for bankruptcy. The very word “bankruptcy” used to reverberate with the terrors of the charnel house. American captains of industry now declare bankruptcy with about as much drama as they down an aspirin tablet. But Rich also knew that I had some interest in Reader’s Digest as an index of popular American culture and especially in the magazine’s role in the formation of the anti-Communist consensus of the 1950s. I touch on this subject in several places in The Anti-Communist Manifestos. It’s a little hard to believe that a journal with five and a half million readers is going under. Why, that’s even more readers than "A Brooklynite on the Ice" commands! But it’s certainly a falling away from the glory days of post-War, when it had a paid circulation of more than seventeen million monthly copies. Reader’s Digest was launched in 1922 by a husband-and-wife genius team, DeWitt and Lila Wallace. This pair was sufficiently famous to have commanded a Time magazine cover at one point.

It was the admirable Robert Hutchins who made the memorable quip about popular journalism in America. We have two great magazines, he said: Time, for people who can’t think, and Life [the great precursor of modern photo-journalism], for people who can’t read. He might have added, “and Reader’s Digest, for people in between, those who have trouble with disyllables.”

The basic idea, simple and brilliant, anticipated the Internet in certain ways. Reader’s Digest would gather and “condense” interesting articles from the whole range of American journalism.There are numerous books about the Reader’s Digest, which must be regarded as a phenomenon unique in the annals of publication. Academics love "the masses" in principle; practice proves a little more difficult. Many scholars seem to think that there must be something morally dubious, and certainly politically incorrect, in a journal read by so many millions of their compatriots. The fullest study is probably John Heidenry’s Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader’s Digest. Full does not, alas, always mean accurate. Unfortunately, on the one point which most interested me (Jan Valtin’s publication of “American Dawn”) this book turned out to be woefully errant. Joanne Sharp’s Condensing the Cold War: Reader’s Digest and American Identity has the virtue of revealing its simple (not to say simple-minded) thesis right up front. The implication here is that the Wallaces were the grandparents of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

From nearly its very inception the Reader’s Digest was the magazine that left-wing intellectuals loved to hate, and they have been constant in their disdain. They couldn't stomach its combination of saccharine patriotism, hick religiosity, and fantastic financial success. As I wrote in my book “As late as 1982, Susan Sontag caused an uproar among progressives by suggesting that 'the émigrés from the communist countries we didn’t listen to, who found it far easier to get published in the Reader’s Digest than in the Nation or the New Statesman, were telling the truth.'” In the 1950s one recurrent theme was the battle of the FBI against domestic Communism. The magazine's tendencies are memorialized in an imaginary joke title of a typical article of the 1950s: "I Slept with a Bear for the FBI, and Found God."

I first encountered this curious political bias when I was writing about Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had first been introduced to a Communist Party meeting in the 1920s by a strange character named Sender Garlin. This man was a Communist Party apparatchik for many decades. He only recently ended his days as an elder statesman of the progressive community of Boulder, Colorado. In the 1930s , Garlin and Chambers worked together on the Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party. In 1943 he published a dime brochure entitled "The Truth about Reader's Digest". What that "truth" was was spelled out in a prefatory letter by the famous novelist Theodore Dreiser. "Just now, from reading your booklet, I gather the publication's true attitude and import. It is all so fascinatingly sly, and to my way of thinking, criminal--since plainly it labors to belittle our chief and most valuable ally, and to forward the desires of the capitalistic group in this country that seeks--and has sought from the very beginning--to establish money-plenty and money-authority for the few as opposed to poverty and slavery for the masses here as elsewhere on earth."

"Sly" is not the first word that comes into my mind with regard to the magazine. Most Digest articles had all the slyness and subtlety of a hydrogen bomb or perhaps the Bubonic Plague. One of my heroes, Max Eastman, who enraged the Left by moving from being editor of the Masses in the 1930s to being a frequent contributor to Reader's Digest in the 1970s, put it thus: “Writing for the Reader’s Digest while not exactly an art, is a highly specialized craft. The magazine is largely concerned with the life of ideas, but as it is addressed to some 50 or 60 million readers—the actual copies printed number over 17 million—the ideas have to be presented with a self-explanatory simplicity. I have learned this craft by thinking of myself as a teacher when writing essays of this kind for the Reader’s Digest.”

Garlin's pamphlet has become a rare item, in large part no doubt because it features three line etching caricatures--of Franco, Charles Lindbergh, and Jan Valtin, who happened at that moment to be the CPUSA's fascists du jour--by the brilliant Communist artist William Gropper. Gropper is particularly "collectible" at the moment, so the dime pamphlet now goes for at least twenty-five bucks when you can find it. I, alas, have had to chase down two copies. It's a thin little thing, and I lost the first one somewhere among my books. Let me heirs be put on notice. By the time they find it, it's bound to be worth a C-note. This Gropper cartoon called "May Day" gives a good idea of Gropper's power and economy of line.

What had particularly enraged Garlin was the fact that the Reader's Digest was prominent in the promotion of the Communist renegade author Jan Valtin (real name Richard Krebs). The Wallaces had "digested" bits of Valtin's famous anti-Communist "autobiography" Out of the Night, and undoubtedly helped increase its circulation. To make matters worse they then published in the May 1941 number Valtin's essay entitled "American Dawn"--one of the most fantastically successful pieces of American boosterism ever penned. "American Dawn" is the story of a repentant ex-Communist who longs for nothing more than to be allowed to become a good American citizen. It worked wonders in helping Krebs to get around very serious immigration problems. At that point the magazine was being distributed in just over four million copies, but the Wallaces were worried that that might not be enough. So they had 750,000 copies of the article made up as offprints for free distribution. I was able to track down on eBay a copy of the original issue in all its dull typographic respectability.