Edward W. Bok Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.