Henry Luce and His American Century
By Alan Brinkley
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780679741541, 576pp.)
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
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Acclaimed historian Alan Brinkley gives us a sharply realized portrait of Henry Luce, arguably the most important publisher of the twentieth century.
As the founder of Time, Fortune, and Life magazines, Luce changed the way we consume news and the way we understand our world. Born the son of missionaries, Henry Luce spent his childhood in rural China, yet he glimpsed a milieu of power altogether different at Hotchkiss and later at Yale. While working at a Baltimore newspaper, he and Brit Hadden conceived the idea of Time: a “news-magazine” that would condense the week’s events in a format accessible to increasingly busy members of the middle class. They launched it in 1923, and young Luce quickly became a publishing titan. In 1936, after Time’s unexpected success—and Hadden’s early death—Luce published the first issue of Life, to which millions soon subscribed.
Brinkley shows how Luce reinvented the magazine industry in just a decade. The appeal of Life seemingly cut across the lines of race, class, and gender. Luce himself wielded influence hitherto unknown among journalists. By the early 1940s, he had come to see his magazines as vehicles to advocate for America’s involvement in the escalating international crisis, in the process popularizing the phrase “World War II.” In spite of Luce’s great success, happiness eluded him. His second marriage—to the glamorous playwright, politician, and diplomat Clare Boothe—was a shambles. Luce spent his later years in isolation, consumed at times with conspiracy theories and peculiar vendettas.
The Publisher tells a great American story of spectacular achievement—yet it never loses sight of the public and private costs at which that achievement came.
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. His previous books include Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, which won the National Book Award for History, and The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. His essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and other publications. He lives in New York City.
The Publisher, Alan Brinkley's biography of Henry Luce, digs into Luce's professional successes â?? among them, Time and Life magazines â?? the sway his politics held over his journalism empire, and his eccentric personal habits. More at NPR.org
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“How fortunate we are . . . that Luce is now the subject of a monumental, magisterial biography, the finest ever written about an American journalist.”
—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Brinkley has a gift for restoring missing dimensions to figures who have been flattened into caricature. . . . The book does full justice to Luce’s outsider insecurity, his blind affinity for men of power and his defects as a family man. But it is a humanizing portrayal, and it credits the role his magazines, Time and Life especially, played in a country growing uneasily into the dominant geopolitical force in the world.”
—Bill Keller, The New York Times Book Review
“Brinkley’s wonderfully insightful and judicious biography is more than the story of a life; it’s a political history of modernity.”
—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
“Graceful and judicious . . . Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing Luce’s most important accomplishments.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A finely calibrated book. . . . [Brinkley] brings an even-handed synthesis and a dispassionate sense of history.”
—Gene Krzyzynski, Buffalo News
“Alan Brinkley has done history and media buffs a tremendous service with this well-written and balanced biography of Henry Luce. . . . [Brinkley] is especially effective at placing events in historical context, and rarely does his narrative bog down with too much arcane information . . . Essential reading for anyone interested in learning about modern mass communication though the prism of the life of one of its founding fathers.”
—Claude R. Marx, Boston Globe
“Brinkley re-creates Luce as an Eminent American, royally and sometimes picturesquely flawed.”
—Nicholas Fraser, Harper’s
“Brinkley’s thoroughly researched work charts the intersections of the man, magazines and world events that were inextricably bound together, leaving the reader inspired by Luce’s hard-won success and the author’s sense of detail in brining Luce’s story to life. . . . While Brinkley writes with the confident voice of an experienced storyteller and the attendant thoroughness and impartiality of a historian of his caliber, his quiet admiration for his subject lies just beneath the surface throughout this account of Henry Luce and his times.”
—Lydia Beyoud, The Oregonian
“The triumph of Brinkley’s biography is not in a single thesis but in the disciplined, well-judged way the author presents and knits in telling fragments from the millions of words, letters, interviews, and documents. . . . Ambitious, authoritative, and enjoyable.”
—Harold Evans, The Daily Beast
“A superbly engrossing biography.”
—Philip Seib, The Dallas Morning News
“Commanding . . . a memorable march through Time.”
—Andrew Burstein, Baton Rouge Advocate
“A largely sympathetic and terrifically engrossing biography.”
—Maureen Corrigan, npr.org
“Brinkley tells of a life once well-known but now as dimly remembered as Life magazine . . . refreshingly nonacademic.”
—Harry Levins, St. Louis Post Dispatch
“Brinkley has told Luce’s saga with scrupulous fairness, compelling detail and more than a tinge of affection for his vast ambitions and vexing frailties . . . with the rigor, honesty and generosity that Luce’s own magazine’s too often sacrificed to the proprietor’s enormous ego and will to power.”
—Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal
“A real gift. . . .Brinkley has given us the enviable model of a man of his moment.”
—James R. Gaines, Columbia Magazine
“Brinkley appears to have read every issue from the early decades of Time, Fortune, and Life cover to cover, grounding his criticisms of Luce’s social and political vision in rigorous detail. He’s equally solid on Luce’s personal life. . . . A top-notch biography, and a valuable addition to the history of American media.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
“This brilliant and absorbing book sets Henry Luce in his true historical context. Brinkley brings Luce vividly back to life, unveils his complex marriages and glittering social circles and shows us how much Luce changed American society. The Publisher recreates the seemingly now-distant moment at which traditional American media were at the peak of their power.”
—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage
“A thoroughly researched, nuanced appreciation of a complex, talented and troubled man.”
—Kirkus (Starred review)
“In this superb biography Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University historian, has told the curiously depressing story of a brilliant man who got everything wrong, including so many of the things that mattered most to him. Mr Brinkley has an eye for both the telling detail and the broad sweep of Luce’s role as the man who saw the need for a national news magazine and foresaw the American century.”
“Alan Brinkley is the modern master of ‘Not-so-fast.’ Caricature and dinner-table gossip and received opinion never satisfy him for a moment, as this deft, vivid and admirably fair-minded portrait of the cofounder of America’s most influential magazine empire makes clear. Brinkley has pinned the authentic Henry Luce to paper—gifted as well as grandiose, simultaneously vain and vulnerable, dogmatic and deeply curious, an essentially lonely man who seemed to know everyone but never found the warm companionship he craved.”
—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament
“Alan Brinkley’s portrait of the remarkable Henry Luce is never less than captivating. From Luce’s childhood in China through prep school and Yale to the founding of TIME, the battles over FORTUNE and the spectacular success of Life (a success which proved disastrous for the first year’s profit/loss statement), the narrative pulses forward, never flagging for an instant. The analysis of the reasons why all three magazines succeeded by catching hold of the American 20th century zeitgeist is nothing less than extraordinary. And Brinkley does it all without Whiggish presumptions or larding his narrative with triumphalism or condescension.”
—David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst
“Rarely have author and subject been so ideally matched. Alan Brinkley, one of our most distinguished historians of 20th Century America, here explores the world, the mind, the magazines, the business empire and the remarkable ambition of Henry Luce, one of a tiny number of media titans who leave a palpable mark on their times. The book is paced like a thriller; it tells a story that is funny and appalling and fascinating by turns, an only-in-America account of an enormous ego at work. This is the way history should be written.”
—Robert G. Kaiser, author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government
“Alan Brinkley’s The Publisher is an exquisite work of scholarship—widely researched and even-handedly descriptive of the controversial Henry Luce. The book is a window on the life and times of the man who did so much to shape 20th-century magazine journalism. No one interested in recent U.S. history will want to miss this splendid biography.”
—Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963