The Magazine in America 1741-1990

The dust-jacket of THE MAGAZINE IN AMERICA 1741-1990 features a sepia-toned photo of a sidewalk magazine vendor at his rack. Held in place by clothespins, RANCH ROMANCES, BREEZY STORIES, and HOLLYWOOD share space with ARGOSY, ILLUSTRATED FOOTBALL ANNUAL, and THE RING. There are familiar names—GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, COSMOPOLITAN, TRUE CONFESSIONS—and some not so familiar.

Those beckoning covers suggest the continuing appeal of magazines and seem to promise riches in store for the reader. How disappointing, then, to find that—despite a $35.00 price-tag—the book itself contains not a single illustration. Illustrations are as vital to a history of magazines as maps are to a history of a military campaign.

Despite that crucial handicap, this history of the magazine in America could have been an interesting and useful book. In fact, it is a sloppy, superficial, patched-together book, flawed to an extent impossible to convey in a brief review. A typical chapter is a farrago of cliches and potted summaries, seasoned with grotesque typographical errors. Describing the high-toned erotic magazine YELLOW SILK, the authors note that it features “stories and articles by Ntoke Shango, Jean Genet, Pierre Louys, Marge Piercy, Eric Gill, and Octavio Paz.” Aside from garbling Ntozake Shange’s name and omitting Pierre Louys’ umlaut, this list indiscriminately mixes living writers with long-dead ones in a manner which suggests that the authors don’t know the difference. Gabriel Garcia Marquez appears here as Gabriel Maria Marquez, while Peter Matthiessen becomes Peter Matthieson; these errors and others are duly repeated in the index.

This pervasive sloppiness points to larger problems, including overreliance on secondhand information and a failure to provide necessary context. In discussing the growth of L.A. WEEKLY, for example, the authors fail to note that the WEEKLY is distributed to record stores, bookstores, and similar outlets, where readers pick it up for free; the WEEKLY should have been discussed in the context of the development of such free tabloids in other cities during the same period. The authors’ condescending and uninformative discussion of THE WORLD AND I fails to connect this unusual magazine with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, though in a previous chapter they had discussed the Moon-backed newsmagazine INSIGHT.

Such errors and omissions could be enumerated for pages. Readers who are looking for a good one-volume history of the magazine in America will have to wait for someone else to do the job right.