Edward W. Bok Essay - Critical Essays

Bok, Edward W.


Edward W. Bok 1863–-1930

Dutch-born American editor, essayist, and autobiographer.

The influential editor in chief of the magazine Ladies' Home Journal between 1889 and 1919, Bok is remembered for his impact on American culture at the turn of the century and for his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography The Americanization of Edward Bok (1920). As editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, Bok instituted advice columns and a series of how-to articles, focusing his energies on improving the lives of Americans by moderately changing the attitudes of the middle-class. Among his reform and public-service efforts conducted in the pages of the Journal were his “Beautiful America” conservation campaign, an attack on patent-medicines, his advocacy of sex education for children, and plans for affordable housing. In his editorial columns and separately published works, Bok sought to project the virtues of common sense, hard work, and service, using himself as an example of how the dutiful application of these ideals would lead to success.

Biographical Information

Bok was born in Den Helder, the Netherlands, in 1863. His family emigrated to the United States when he was six years old, settling in Brooklyn, New York. Bok attended public school until the age of twelve, at which time he took a job as an office boy for the Western Union Telegraph Company in order to help support his impoverished parents. During this period he began to write brief biographies of notable Americans and to sell them for ten dollars each. In 1882 Bok found work with the publisher Henry Holt and Company as a stenographer. Two years later he joined the prominent New York publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons. His efforts with the church-focused Brooklyn Magazine and his creation of the Bok Syndicate Press, a newspaper publishing organization, in 1886 earned him the attention of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, publisher of the Ladies' Home Journal. In 1889 Curtis offered him the editorship of the magazine. Bok accepted and moved to Philadelphia. With Bok as editor in chief the Ladies' Home Journal experienced considerable gains in readership, becoming by 1903 the first American magazine to reach a circulation of one million readers. By 1893 Bok was made vice-president of the Curtis Publishing Company. He married Curtis's daughter, Mary Louise, in 1896 and remained editor of the Ladies' Home Journal until 1919. After his retirement, Bok devoted himself to writing and philanthropy. His 1920 autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for biography. He also established a series of public endowments, including the $100,000 American Peace Award. Bok went on to make more than two million dollars in charitable donations prior to his death in 1930 at his estate near Lake Wales, Florida.

Major Works

Many of Bok's writings are autobiographical in nature, and nearly all reflect his belief in the importance of service, hard work, self-improvement, and public awareness. Successward (1895) is essentially a book of advice for young men drawn from Bok's own experiences as an immigrant. The same theme is treated somewhat differently in his Why I Believe in Poverty as the Richest Experience That Can Come to a Boy (1915), which links his accomplishments with an unceasing effort to escape destitution and a desire to better himself. Told in the third-person, Bok's best-known work, The Americanization of Edward Bok, holds up these same middle-class virtues, detailing his application of assiduity and energy to the task of achieving his goals. Among Bok's journalistic writing, he conducted a series of editorial crusades in the columns of the Ladies' Home Journal. Calling for the improvement of parks and public roads and the limitation of certain forms of obtrusive advertising, he developed the “Beautiful America” campaign in print. Bok launched a critique of largely ineffective patent-medicines and a ban on their advertising in his periodical, which led to the passage of the 1906 Food and Drug Act. He also offered a sustained criticism of the women's suffrage movement.

Critical Reception

While Bok enjoyed considerable public success during his lifetime, he also incited a number of critics who decried his paternalistic attitude toward women, his sentimentality, and his oversimplification of complex problems. Why I Believe in Poverty as the Richest Experience That Can Come to a Boy was particularly singled out by commentators, who observed that Bok's universal application of his own experience failed to adequately confront the difficulties of entrenched poverty and the realities of helplessness and resignation that frequently accompany it. The Americanization of Edward Bok was extremely well-received upon its publication, but the work has since declined in esteem as modern scholars observe that Bok quite characteristically employed the American themes of opportunity and advancement—previously elevated to near-legendary status in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger—to describe his own arc of success. Other modern assessments of Bok have tended to focus on his accomplishments as an editor of one of America's most popular monthly periodicals and to analyze the rather simplified image of benevolent middle-class virtue he presented in his writings.

Principal Works

The Young Man in Business (nonfiction) 1894

Successward (nonfiction) 1895

A Story of Some Pictures (nonfiction) 1896

The Young Man and the Church (nonfiction) 1896

Explaining the Editor (nonfiction) 1901

Why I Believe in Poverty as the Richest Experience That Can Come to a Boy (nonfiction) 1915

How the Y.M.C.A. Made Good: The Actual Facts Stated (nonfiction) 1919

The Americanization of Edward Bok (autobiography) 1920

Two Persons (nonfiction) 1922

A Man from Maine (nonfiction) 1923

Twice Thirty (nonfiction) 1925

America, Give Me a Chance! (autobiography) 1926

Dollars Only (nonfiction) 1926

You: A Personal Message (nonfiction) 1926

Mary's Son, A Christmas Brochure (nonfiction) 1927

Perhaps I Am (nonfiction) 1928

America's Taj Mahal, the Singing Tower of Florida (nonfiction) 1929

The Man in the White House (nonfiction) 1929


Salme Hanju Steinberg (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “The Editor's Aims, Strategies, and Risks,” in Reformer in the Marketplace: Edward W. Bok and The Ladies' Home Journal, Louisiana State University Press, 1979, pp. 50–74.

[In the following essay, Steinberg details Bok's editorial policies, reform efforts, and influence over the readership of the Ladies' Home Journal.]

Edward Bok's personal qualities, especially his dedication to the humanistic values of his generation, profoundly influenced his conduct as editor. Although he often preached from his own experiences, he liked to insist that he had to repress his own personality, which he called Edward William Bok, to allow his persona, Edward Bok, the middle-class model for his generation, to edit the Journal.1 The pages of the Journal do not bear him out, however. The man underestimated the editor; indeed, he judged him too severely. The editor accomplished most of what the man endorsed. The man of sixty, conscious of his age, remembered the vain hours he had spent on the problems of knitting and embroidery when important ideas begged to be explored. In the 1890s Bok certainly had accepted the limitations of the Journal's objectives. His was a woman's magazine, not a “free lance” eager to spar with the “combative questions.”2 The Journal's record reveals, however, that Bok and his audience eventually outgrew these limited aims.

Bok's successful editorship was the result of his carefully attuning himself to his readers, sensing their fears, and giving them what they wanted to read and a little bit more. This combination, more than any other factor, assured the Journal's large circulation and its consequent choice by advertisers for spending their revenues. Just as Cyrus Curtis had gained the confidence of his advertisers, Edward Bok cultivated the trust and assurance of his readers.

Bok created this special quality between his audience and himself in several ways. First, his definition of his role as editor and his relationship with his staff contributed to the climate of trust and confidence. Second, he built up his readers' trust in products advertised in the Journal. And, third, he shrewdly measured the needs and wishes of his female audience and always tried, as far as his conscience permitted, to keep pace with their developing interests and expanding role.

The student of Edward Bok as editor can learn more about his achievements than his procedures. The records simply are too few to illuminate his methods of editorial negotiations with writers and contributors. He preferred to use personal interviews and was willing to travel to conduct business. Although Bok and his journalist contemporary, S. S. McClure, had many business connections, only occasional references and notes to McClure are extant in the Bok letterbooks. Peter Lyon, McClure's biographer, said he did not remember seeing a single Bok item or letter in the bulky McClure papers. As Bok told one of his contributors, “A half-hour's talk together would do more than all the letters we could write.”3

To show the differences between the two Curtis publications—Bok's Journal and George Horace Lorimer's Saturday Evening Post—the contemporary business journal Profitable Advertising published a short essay. The editors of both magazines, the article said, were eager to satisfy the readers' interests; but Bok's magazine consistently mirrored his audience, while Lorimer's more often reflected Lorimer. In reality, Bok's influence was just as pervasive as Lorimer's, only more subtle. He often said, however, that an editor could only be a good listener and give readers a magazine that they, in effect, wrote themselves. To achieve his ends Bok stayed at home one or two days out of every week reading the thousands of letters that inundated the Curtis Company offices. His ideas for articles, deletions of material, everything, he said, came from his readers. He did qualify this statement by admitting that his successful editorship came from being a “huckleberry or two” ahead of his readers.4

From the start Bok hoped to do more than merely reflect the audience. He wanted to raise the aspirations of his readers by giving them what they wanted but in a more profound way. Believing that the Journal was a tool for educating large numbers of American women, he tried to guide their interests to areas he thought would benefit them. He noticed, for example, that many people were concerned about raising the ethical standards of their communities, and he was convinced that sooner or later such people would look to the Bible for answers. Because no religious newspaper provided such guidance at that time, Bok and the Ladies' Home Journal decided to step into the breach by hiring the Reverend Lyman Abbott to counsel questioning readers with biblical wisdom.5

Bok enjoyed being a didactic editor. He once told Bernard Shaw that the Journal's editorial pages were the world's “largest possible pulpit.” One of his main techniques in education was to use his editorial page as his witness on topics that concerned him. Because an occasional article on an important issue had the greatest potential impact when published in editorial form, Bok sometimes asked contributors if they would permit editorial adaptations of manuscripts they had submitted to the Journal.6

Part of the editor's strategy was to create a forceful public personality, often remonstrative, always personal. He wanted to know his audience and his audience to know him. Although his photograph was not printed in the Journal, it was available for a small fee from the publishers. The Bok correspondence also reveals his initial eagerness to accept lecture engagements. But by 1906 Bok was willing to lecture only in his home state and its close neighbors—Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey. In addition, he asked higher fees if he was unable to spend the night in his own house. When he decided that the public attended his lectures only to stare, he permanently discontinued his engagements on the lecture circuit.7 Bok did not like public display or fanfare after he had become a public figure, and he realized that lecturing did not build the Journal audience.

Bok's ideas prevailed, too, in the type of fiction acceptable to the Journal. Any criticism of life had to be balanced by a suggestion of hope, an offer of remedy. Similarly, sadness had to be offset by humor, because Bok believed the stories should entertain, amuse but not sadden. When lessons were to be taught through fiction, Bok often advised writers to come only to the threshold of disaster, sparing the reader from too great an emotional shock. Even if a manuscript was nearly in accord with Bok's ideas, he often requested changes in theme or handling before acceptance.8 When too many changes were in order for a manuscript, it was rejected. Unhappily Bok returned Samuel Clemens' story “My Platonic Sweetheart” and wrote apologetically to the author, “It must be like bitter gall to a humorist to be told that the public always wants funny things from him, but it does from Mark Twain unquestionably.”9 The predictable, not the unusual, was standard for Journal fiction.

Although Bok solicited fiction from some first-rate writers, the authors could not transgress Bok's anti-realistic bent. As a result, Bok published Rudyard Kipling's Just So stories and the work of writers like the “smiling” realist, William Dean Howells. A typical Journal novel was Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs.

Journal fiction, from the editor's viewpoint, should not narrate the way life was but rather the way life should be. In 1890, one essayist was eager to write an article on the character of contemporary fiction. Bok told her to avoid discussing the popularity of certain leading realist and naturalist writers: “I almost fear that the statistics … on the sale of such writers as Zola and Tolstoi would be so large that it is best not to acquaint the public with it.”10 Another writer submitted a short story using the theater as background. Bok wrote to the author, “Nothing could be more directly against our policy than a story the scenes of which are laid on the stage; and to make matters worse you give me a suicide at the end.”11

Bok saw no need to excite his readers by presenting them with a barrage of controversial and disturbing material. It was much shrewder to court them in unimportant matters so that he could preach his big concerns more effectively. Moreover, because his own literary taste was uncultivated, he willingly gratified his readers' preferences for happy, sentimental writing. And he was sure to hear from them if he violated this formula.

The dominance of Bok's personal philosophy at the Journal offices was maintained through his careful selection and control of the staff. Although the editorial staff was filled with highly professional and talented associates, Bok retained a commanding view over his chosen experts. By 1890 he had an editorial board made up of writers from whom he could request short articles on subjects of his choosing. Other editors read manuscripts and selected articles to submit to him. After he set a price on the manuscripts, they were given to his editorial assistants. Bok also placed other assistants on editorial salary to keep eyes and ears open for material of Journal interest in various cities. By 1898, he had a staff of twenty-two members, who formed an important element in developing the readers' trust in the magazine.12

Cyrus Curtis guaranteed editorial freedom to the Journal and Post editors, but members of Bok's staff were hardly free from their editor's influence.13 He closely supervised his writers' contributions and often wrote samples of the kind of copy he wanted. Because his interests and capabilities were so extensive, he did not hesitate to write a column for a new series on social usage or advice to the lovelorn. Whatever the topic, he tried to be on the frontier of change. He pointed out the impracticality of a dwarf lemon tree for a table centerpiece as deftly as he reminded an associate art editor of new developments in printing technology.14

After advice columns on various subjects such as home nursing and child feeding had appeared in the Journal every month for a year or so, Bok discontinued the heading and placed it in the Journal service directory. Readers could then write to the staff editor in charge of the subject and receive personal answers. Bok admitted that, after twelve published columns, the basic questions on a topic were answered and the department only took space away from new topics.15

Despite the appearance of well-coordinated staff work, Bok's editorial assistants often failed to meet his exacting standards. The editor complained that he could entrust painstaking research problems to few American writers because Americans were not sufficiently thorough in their research methods. Not until 1911, when Karl Harriman became Bok's managing editor, were many trivial editorial problems removed from his anxious surveillance.16 Bok had to supervise his staff very closely, since the Journal's mainstay in serving its readers was the personal reply promised to every inquiry; and the volume of reader correspondence grew quickly. (The Journal offices received 59,000 letters in the last four months of 1911 and 97,000 letters in the last four months of 1912.) Every six months Bok wrote a letter under an assumed name to each of his department editors. He disliked the spying character of this method, but it enabled him to learn how attentive, accurate, and neat his editors' replies were. He praised good responses to his fake inquiries as strongly as he censured slipshod replies. Bok and his staff tested their rival magazines' services in the same way and found them wanting in contrast to the Journal's.

Biographers of Bok's journalist contemporaries sometimes used him as the tranquil foil to highlight the distraught lives of their hyperanxious subjects. Bok was wholly uncomplicated to some observers and to others a jolly mover of men who worked without strain.17 His associates knew better, however; he was not an indulgent editor. Perhaps this characteristic gained more victories for him than it lost contributors and staff members. His first managing editor advised office visitors to come prepared with definite ideas to discuss with the editor in chief; Bok had no time for a “rambling talk.”18

Journal editorial copy had to be in the office at least three months before publication. Bok often made layout decisions several months before this deadline. He also made last-minute changes in the magazine's makeup. When he left the office for business trips or vacations, the magazine was made up far enough in advance to cover the issues he would not be present to supervise.19

Although Karl Harriman's predecessor, William V. Alexander, enjoyed a long tenure as managing editor from 1899 to 1911, he had walked uneasily on a thin line between his own responsibilities and Bok's wishes. He was authorized to open all Bok's mail, including that marked personal, and knew the ins and outs of all office issues; but he avoided making independent managerial decisions, preferring instead to wait for Bok's judgment. His caution annoyed Bok.20

Alexander certainly did not believe that Bok was uncomplicated, and occasionally he complained about his chief's capricious editorial decisions. He did not, for example, understand the seemingly inconsistent criteria used by Bok in selecting illustrations for publication.21 On one occasion, Alexander received an irate letter from a writer who complained that her manuscript had been unwisely edited. Apparently Bok had made inaccurate “corrections” in the manuscript, which was about Holland. Alexander admitted to her that Journal staff members would not dare to question any textual changes made by a Hollander about his native Netherlands.22

Perhaps Bok wanted Alexander's main job to be to instill fear of the editor's wrath into bothersome or delinquent Journal contributors. Alexander did write to contributors about his harrowing sessions with the editor after Bok had been informed that a writer might be unable to meet a scheduled deadline. Alexander also tried to squeeze concessions from contributors by threatening to direct Bok's attention to the matter at hand.23

Only the rare writer, like the rare managing editor, met Bok's standards. Esther Everett Lape remembered that once, close to the end of Bok's editorship, he complimented her: “I feel very stimulated. At last I have found a real writer.”24 Bok complained that, in addition to their generally poor quality of writing, too many writers wanted to break office rules. They fought unsuccessfully against his requirement that all manuscripts submitted to the Journal were on approval; that is, nothing was guaranteed publication before Bok himself read and accepted it.25

Bok's editorial standards were high but so were the fees paid to writers published in the Journal—one advantage of the magazine's large circulation.26 Bok had no fixed scale of payment; he judged each manuscript on its merits alone. He argued that payment by word weakened literary craftsmanship, and thus he paid in lump sums only. Despite an occasional reference in his letters to a Journal policy of not soliciting manuscripts, Bok did solicit most articles and some fiction. Many of his editorial practices, such as lump-sum payment and manuscripts on approval, were still regarded as novelties by other publishers before World War I.27

Bok carefully nurtured contributors' trust in the Journal and its editors. He enjoyed Benjamin Harrison's confidence, for example, and he made all the book publishing arrangements for the collections of Harrison's articles on the presidency that had been originally published in the Journal.28 In another instance, Finley Peter Dunne, the creator of “Mr. Dooley,” could not finish a serial for the Journal because he was in poor health. Bok wrote to Dunne telling him to keep the advance the Journal had already paid him and, upon his recovery, repay in token by giving the Journal the first chance to examine any new work he finished.29

One indication of the editor's interest in maintaining confidence in his magazine was his care to avoid abetting plagiarism. The Journal staff had to guard constantly against the dishonesty and unreliability of some contributors. Problems of real and suspected literary piracy haunted the editorial offices throughout Bok's thirty years as editor. In most cases Bok demanded acknowledgment of error and confession by the guilty plagiarist, whereupon he dismissed the case. One literary thief begged the young editor for his mother's sake not to publish news of his wrongdoing. Bok agreed.30 In cases of copyright infringement the Journal tried to settle out of court. One magazine reprinted an article published in a British magazine, which had bought the article from the Journal. William Alexander wrote many times to the offender and demanded restitution. When the culprit sent fifty dollars, Alexander returned the check with a letter stating, “From the beginning our stand in the matter has been one for principle alone, and as you have given us all the satisfaction that we felt it is our duty to demand we wish now to prove to you that we have nothing but the kindest and most neighborly regard for you.”31

Bok's idea of the editor as steward demanded that he personally supervise the myriad details affecting the publication of his mass magazine. He complained about his editorial burdens but did little to lighten them. Everyone from reader to staff member knew it was Bok who stood behind the Journal; he would guard their trust and confidence in him. His job was his vocation, in the religious sense. He knew what middle-class Americans wanted and expected to hear, but he also gave them a pinch of what they should hear if they were to grow in compassion and understanding of themselves and others.

The personal approach Bok used in his editorship extended to the purely business side of the Journal, the province of advertising. Indeed, advertising had an integral place in his vision of the magazine's purpose. He wanted everything published in the Journal to be trustworthy and useful. At a time when suspicion of business was manifest among the middle classes, Bok tried to show that society accrued countless benefits from commercial and business undertakings. Because he also criticized some features of advertising, he contributed to the credibility of the Curtis Publishing Company.

Bok often said that he believed in the businessman's power for performing good works. Businessmen were not the sordid people so often pictured, he said, and they were the great patrons of the arts and medical research in the United States. In addition, just and efficient business methods could be successfully applied to all sectors of life, including home and the Church.32 Although he lauded business, he knew that far more important values transcended the marketplace.

In the reorganized Curtis Company the president defined the jurisdiction of the business manager. In the president's absence, the manager would be responsible for general business, only if the vice-president was not an editor of one of the magazines. If the vice-president was an editor, he would manage business affairs in the president's absence. The manager would not, however, have jurisdiction over either Journal or Post editor.33

By 1892 Edward Bok was the vice-president of the company. Curtis therefore regarded him as his chief lieutenant in business matters. Bok filled this post somewhat reluctantly. Part of his responsibility involved occasionally soliciting advertising for the Curtis magazines or checking advertisements sent out by the Journal or Post. Usually, he wanted nothing to do with conducting the Journal's business affairs.34

Although Bok had to solicit advertising in Curtis's absence, he quietly attempted to withdraw on Curtis's return. But agents and customers continued calling on him to finish their particular negotiations. Apparently he was reluctant to tell these clients to work with Curtis and stop taking his time. The publisher wrote to his western advertising agent: “I would prefer that Mr. Bok would fight his own battles and if his tact prevents him from expressing himself clearly, I have made up my mind to do so for him so as to prevent as much as possible his ruffling up my nervous system with complaints.” Thus Curtis, in an effort to steer clients away from discussions with Bok, often advised them that Bok knew no more about advertising than an office boy.35

After he retired, Bok fondly remembered writing advertising copy about Journal articles. Certainly he might have written some advertisements, but it is unlikely that he wrote many. Curtis said, probably a bit more accurately, that he wrote the advertising copy. Company records reveal Curtis's references to writing some advertisements but no evidence to support Bok's statement.36 In fact, records only testify to Bok's annoyance when he was in any way associated with the business of Journal advertising.

Bok was, however, consistently interested in the quality and craftsmanship of advertising. In 1923, four years after he had retired from the Journal, Bok...

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David Shi (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Edward Bok and the Simple Life,” in American Heritage, Vol. 36, No. 1, December, 1984, pp. 100–09.

[In the following essay, Shi considers Bok's crusade in favor of simple living.]

For the thirty years between 1889 and 1919, Edward Bok and the magazine he edited—Ladies' Home Journal—exerted a profound influence over middle-class American values. His message was direct: The Simple Life was joyous and good, and too many Americans, seduced by the clutter and false values of Victorian materialism, had drifted away from it.

Bok is best known today as an example of the “rags-to-riches” success story: an immigrant youth who made...

(The entire section is 6339 words.)

Lynn Hayes Bromfield (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Edward William Bok: Editor of the Most Valuable Magazine in the World,” in Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Publishing, Vol. 20, No. 3, March 1, 1991, pp. 111–12.

[In the following essay, Bromfield summarizes Bok's contributions as editor of the Ladies' Home Journal.]

In 1889, Louisa Knapp, editor of Ladies' Home Journal since 1883 and wife of founder Cyrus Curtis, relinquished her editorial duties. Curtis hired 26-year-old Edward William Bok as her replacement.

In appointing Bok as editor, Curtis made an excellent choice, for it was under Bok's direction that Ladies' Home Journal achieved its position in 1920 as the most...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Beth Dalia Snyder (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Confidence Women: Constructing Female Culture and Community in ‘Just Among Ourselves’ and the Ladies' Home Journal,ATQ Vol. 12, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 311–25.

[In the following essay, Snyder describes the creation of a female community in the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal while the periodical was under Bok's editorship.]

… how much greater response would there be to a magazine of higher standards, of larger initiative—a magazine that would be an authoritative clearing-house for all the problems confronting women in the home, that brought itself closely into contact with those problems and tried to solve...

(The entire section is 6363 words.)