Friday, March 10, 2017

On reading old magazines

Recently, I discovered three boxes of magazines from the 1970s that we’d moved from our old house to this one over 30 years ago. They’re headed for the recycle box, but I decided to look through them first. I found time machines. The magazines are Saturday Night (Canadian, published from 1897 to 2005), Esquire (American, still published), and Omni (American, 1978-1995). I’ve been (re-)reading Saturday Night and Esquire.

Some impressions: I’m surprised, but shouldn’t be, how quickly celebrities fade. Very few writers (for example) that seemed so important 40 years ago are still read these days. Hemingway may stand for writers who are important because they articulate the anxieties of the time in a way that feels authentic to their readers. Now they are of historic interest, and nostalgia triggers for the elderly, who vaguely recall the intensity of reading those books. But attempts at rereading them usually fail. I couldn’t get past the first half-page of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, for example.

The same is true of movies: Godard, Truffaut and others of the French New Wave Cinema had a huge influence on movie-making, but my vague recall of their films doesn’t translate into a desire to see them again.

But politics have staying power. The same issues that propelled Trump to the White House were the stuff of comment and argument in the 1970s. Some writers (Kenneth Galbraith chief among them) warned that capitalism was morphing into something destructive. “Trickle down economics” was a fraud perpetrated on the voters, as was globalism. Both were used as covers for a massive transfer of wealth to the 1%. The magazines offer both starry-eyed defences of these new economic arrangements, and dire warnings. The left-right divide was not yet as strong as it is now; “liberal” was still a positive label. But “new” conservatives were gaining respectability. Terrorism came mostly from the far left, not the far right.

One of the most prescient articles is “A Few Lessons in History from Harry Truman”, by Merle Miller (Esquire, January 1973). Miller provides extended quotes from a series of interviews, done as preparation for a biography. Truman was a reader, as a boy he “always had his nose in a book.” He knew American history and the Constitution probably better than any President before or since. The article summarises his views of the Presidents; his judgments are blunt. Most relevant for today:

Miller: I gather you think the system can take a bad President now and again and still survive. Truman: Maybe so, and [Taft] might have been a good one, but I’m talking about the Presidency of the United States. And the fact that during the four years Taft was in the White House the country started going to hell.

It went to hell because the “money men” got hold of the government. Taft’s economic policy was trickle down without that name. In general, Truman sees the political divide in the USA as between the money-men and the people. Recent events confirm his view, I think.

Most ads were “lifestyle”. Cigarettes and alcohol were sold as experience enhancers and status signifiers. Your choice showed that you were an expert of some kind. The same appeal to display in expertise shows up in the ads for amplifiers, speakers, cassette players, TVs, cars, clothes, travel destinations, all touted as must-have pleasure machines for the social striver. Ads are both more subtle and more blatant these days. Plain vanilla advertising has pretty well disappeared. But many ads back then were different only in the brand names. For example, brandy as a sign of taste and status: the ads not only make the same appeals, they look much the same, with a an elegant young man holding his snifter while a nubile female lounges at his feet holding hers. He’s looking straight out at you, it’s the power-stare. She’s looking up at him. The setting is some kind of semi-outdoor space with large windows and the kind of furniture that’s sold as increasing the elegance of a room.

Some of the tech was ahead of its time. “Quadraphonic” was an early attempt at what we now call surround sound. I heard a demo in a record store, it was awesome. But without at least four speakers, and the room to put them in, the effect was lost. That expense doomed it. There were small, pocket-sized 35mm cameras, but their small lenses limited their usefulness. And there was Polaroid’s SX-70, the best “instant camera” until digital cameras.

There’s fiction, too. In the mid-70s, both magazines published one or two stories per issue. Some of the authors have lasted (eg, Atwood), most were merely fashionable (eg, Barthelme), some were considered classics of the time (eg, O’Hara). About half are still readable. Most still had the kind of knotted plots that had become the standard for pulp-fiction, but mostly without the gore.

It was/is strange to read articles about current events and issues that I now think of as history. That’s perhaps the greatest charm of old magazines. There’s an online Esquire Archive. One month free, then $4.99/month, about half the single copy price.


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