How Millions of People are Reached: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 33

The success of The Ladies’ Home Journal went steadily forward. The circulation had passed the previously unheard-of figure for a monthly magazine of a million and a half copies per month; it had now touched a million and three-quarters.

And not only was the figure so high, but the circulation itself was absolutely free from “water.” The public could not obtain the magazine through what are known as clubbing-rates, since no subscriber was permitted to include any other magazine with it; years ago it had abandoned the practice of offering premiums or consideration of any kind to induce subscriptions; and the newsdealers were not allowed to return unsold copies of the periodical. Hence every copy was either purchased by the public at the full price at a newsstand, or subscribed for at its stated subscription price. It was, in short, an authoritative circulation. And on every hand the question was being asked: “How is it done? How is such a high circulation obtained?”

Bok’s invariable answer was that he gave his readers the very best of the class of reading that he believed would interest them, and that he spared neither effort nor expense to obtain it for them. When Mr. Howells once asked him how he classified his audience, Bok replied: “We appeal to the intelligent American woman rather than to the intellectual type.” And he gave her the best he could obtain. As he knew her to be fond of the personal type of literature, he gave her in succession Jane Addams‘s story of “My Fifteen Years at Hull House,” and the remarkable narration of Helen Keller‘s “Story of My Life“; he invited Henry Van Dyke, who had never been in the Holy Land, to go there, camp out in a tent, and then write a series of sketches, “Out of Doors in the Holy Land“; he induced Lyman Abbott to tell the story of “My Fifty Years as a Minister.” He asked Gene Stratton Porter to tell of her bird-experiences in the series: “What I Have Done with Birds“; he persuaded Dean Hodges to turn from his work of training young clergymen at the Episcopal Seminary, at Cambridge, and write one of the most successful series of Bible stories for children ever printed; and then he supplemented this feature for children by publishing Rudyard Kipling‘s “Just So” stories and his “Puck of Pook’s Hill.” He induced F. Hopkinson Smith to tell the best stories he had ever heard in his wide travels in “The Man in the Arm Chair”; he got Kate Douglas Wiggin to tell a country church experience of hers in “The Old Peabody Pew”; and Jean Webster her knowledge of almshouse life in “Daddy Long Legs.”

The readers of The Ladies’ Home Journal realized that it searched the whole field of endeavor in literature and art to secure what would interest them, and they responded with their support.

Another of Bok’s methods in editing was to do the common thing in an uncommon way. He had the faculty of putting old wine in new bottles and the public liked it. His ideas were not new; he knew there were no new ideas, but he presented his ideas in such a way that they seemed new. It is a significant fact, too, that a large public will respond more quickly to an idea than it will to a name.

This The Ladies’ Home Journal proved again and again. Its most pronounced successes, from the point of view of circulation, were those in which the idea was the sole and central appeal. For instance, when it gave American women an opportunity to look into a hundred homes and see how they were furnished, it added a hundred thousand copies to the circulation. There was nothing new in publishing pictures of rooms and, had it merely done this, it is questionable whether success would have followed the effort. It was the way in which it was done. The note struck entered into the feminine desire, reflected it, piqued curiosity, and won success.

Again, when The Journal decided to show good taste and bad taste in furniture, in comparative pictures, another hundred thousand circulation came to it. There was certainly nothing new in the comparative idea; but applied to a question of taste, which could not be explained so clearly in words, it seemed new.

Had it simply presented masterpieces of art as such, the series might have attracted little attention. But when it announced that these masterpieces had always been kept in private galleries, and seen only by the favored few; that the public had never been allowed to get any closer to them than to read of the fabulous prices paid by their millionaire owners; and that now the magazine would open the doors of those exclusive galleries and let the public in—public curiosity was at once piqued, and over one hundred and fifty thousand persons who had never before bought the magazine were added to the list.

In not one of these instances, nor in the case of other successful series, did the appeal to the public depend upon the names of contributors; there were none: it was the idea which the public liked and to which it responded.

The editorial Edward Bok enjoyed this hugely; the real Edward Bok did not. The one was bottled up in the other. It was a case of absolute self-effacement. The man behind the editor knew that if he followed his own personal tastes and expressed them in his magazine, a limited audience would be his instead of the enormous clientele that he was now reaching. It was the man behind the editor who had sought expression in the idea of Country Life, the magazine which his company sold to Doubleday, Page & Company, and which he would personally have enjoyed editing.

It was in 1913 that the real Edward Bok, bottled up for twenty-five years, again came to the surface. The majority stockholders of The Century Magazine wanted to dispose of their interest in the periodical. Overtures were made to The Curtis Publishing Company, but its hands were full, and the matter was presented for Bok’s personal consideration. The idea interested him, as he saw in The Century a chance for his self-expression. He entered into negotiations, looked carefully into the property itself and over the field which such a magazine might fill, decided to buy it, and install an active editor while he, as a close adviser, served as the propelling power.

Bok figured out that there was room for one of the trio of what was, and still is, called the standard-sized magazines, namely Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Century. He believed, as he does to-day, that any one of these magazines could be so edited as to preserve all its traditions and yet be so ingrafted with the new progressive, modern spirit as to dominate the field and constitute itself the leader in that particular group. He believed that there was a field which would produce a circulation in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million copies a month for one of those magazines, so that it would be considered not, as now, one of three, but the one.

What Bok saw in the possibilities of the standard illustrated magazine has been excellently carried out by Mr. Ellery Sedgwick in The Atlantic Monthly; every tradition has been respected, and yet the new progressive note introduced has given it a position and a circulation never before attained by a non-illustrated magazine of the highest class.

As Bok studied the field, his confidence in the proposition, as he saw it, grew. For his own amusement, he made up some six issues of The Century as he visualized it, and saw that the articles he had included were all obtainable. He selected a business manager and publisher who would relieve him of the manufacturing problems; but before the contract was actually closed Bok, naturally, wanted to consult Mr. Curtis, who was just returning from abroad, as to this proposed sharing of his editor.

For one man to edit two magazines inevitably meant a distribution of effort, and this Mr. Curtis counselled against. He did not believe that any man could successfully serve two masters; it would also mean a division of public association; it might result in Bok’s physical undoing, as already he was overworked. Mr. Curtis’s arguments, of course, prevailed; the negotiations were immediately called off, and for the second time—for some wise reason, undoubtedly—the real Edward Bok was subdued. He went back into the bottle!

A cardinal point in Edward Bok’s code of editing was not to commit his magazine to unwritten material, or to accept and print articles or stories simply because they were the work of well-known persons. And as his acquaintance with authors multiplied, he found that the greater the man the more willing he was that his work should stand or fall on its merit, and that the editor should retain his prerogative of declination—if he deemed it wise to exercise it.

Rudyard Kipling was, and is, a notable example of this broad and just policy. His work is never imposed upon an editor; it is invariably submitted, in its completed form, for acceptance or declination. “Wait until it’s done,” said Kipling once to Bok as he outlined a story to him which the editor liked, “and see whether you want it. You can’t tell until then.” (What a difference from the type of author who insists that an editor must take his or her story before a line is written!)

“I told Watt to send you,” he writes to Bok, “the first four of my child stories (you see I hadn’t forgotten my promise), and they may serve to amuse you for a while personally, even if you don’t use them for publication. Frankly, I don’t myself see how they can be used for the L. H. J.; but they’re part of a scheme of mine for trying to give children not a notion of history, but a notion of the time sense which is at the bottom of all knowledge of history; and history, rightly understood, means the love of one’s fellow-men and the land one lives in.”

James Whitcomb Riley was another who believed that an editor should have the privilege of saying “No” if he so elected. When Riley was writing a series of poems for Bok, the latter, not liking a poem which the Hoosier poet sent him, returned it to him. He wondered how Riley would receive a declination—naturally a rare experience. But his immediate answer settled the question:

“Thanks equally for your treatment of both poems, [he wrote], the one accepted and the other returned. Maintain your own opinions and respect, and my vigorous esteem for you shall remain ‘deep-rooted in the fruitful soil.’ No occasion for apology whatever. In my opinion, you are wrong; in your opinion, you are right; therefore, you are right,—at least righter than wronger. It is seldom that I drop other work for logic, but when I do, as my grandfather was wont to sturdily remark, ‘it is to some purpose, I can promise you.’

“Am goin’ to try mighty hard to send you the dialect work you’ve so long wanted; in few weeks at furthest. ‘Patience and shuffle the cards.’

“I am really, just now, stark and bare of one common-sense idea. In the writing line, I was never so involved before and see no end to the ink-(an humorous voluntary provocative, I trust of much merriment)-creasing pressure of it all.

“Even the hope of waking to find myself famous is denied me, since I haven’t time in which to fall asleep. Therefore, very drowsily and yawningly indeed, I am your

“James Whitcomb Riley.”

Neither did the President of the United States consider himself above a possible declination of his material if it seemed advisable to the editor. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson wrote to Bok:

“Sometime ago you kindly intimated to me that you would like to publish an article from me. At first, it seemed impossible for me to undertake anything of the kind, but I have found a little interval in which I have written something on Mexico which I hope you will think worthy of publication. If not, will you return it to me?”

The President, too, acted as an intermediary in turning authors in Bok’s direction, when the way opened. In a letter written not on the official White House letterhead, but on his personal “up-stairs” stationery, as it is called, he asks:

“Will you do me the favor of reading the enclosed to see if it is worthy of your acceptance for the Journal, or whether you think it indicates that the writer, with a few directions and suggestions, might be useful to you?

“It was written by —. She is a woman of great refinement, of a very unusually broad social experience, and of many exceptional gifts, who thoroughly knows what she is writing about, whether she has yet discovered the best way to set it forth or not. She is one of the most gifted and resourceful hostesses I have known, but has now fallen upon hard times.

“Among other things that she really knows, she really does thoroughly know old furniture and all kinds of china worth knowing.

“Pardon me if I have been guilty of an indiscretion in sending this direct to you. I am throwing myself upon your indulgence in my desire to help a splendid woman.

“She has a great collection of recipes which housekeepers would like to have. Does a serial cook-book sound like nonsense?”

A further point in his editing which Bok always kept in view was his rule that the editor must always be given the privilege of revising or editing a manuscript. Bok’s invariable rule was, of course, to submit his editing for approval, but here again the bigger the personality back of the material, the more willing the author was to have his manuscript “blue pencilled,” if he were convinced that the deletions or condensations improved or at least did not detract from his arguments. It was the small author who ever resented the touch of the editorial pencil upon his precious effusions.

As a matter of fact there are few authors who cannot be edited with advantage, and it would be infinitely better for our reading if this truth was applied to some of the literature of to-day.

Bok had once under his hand a story by Mark Twain, which he believed contained passages that should be deleted. They represented a goodly portion of the manuscript. They were, however, taken out, and the result submitted to the humorist. The answer was curious. Twain evidently saw that Bok was right, for he wrote: “Of course, I want every single line and word of it left out,” and then added: “Do me the favor to call the next time you are again in Hartford. I want to say things which—well, I want to argue with you.” Bok never knew what those “things” were, for at the next meeting they were not referred to.

It is, perhaps, a curious coincidence that all the Presidents of the United States whose work Bok had occasion to publish were uniformly liberal with regard to having their material edited.

Colonel Roosevelt was always ready to concede improvement: “Fine,” he wrote; “the changes are much for the better. I never object to my work being improved, where it needs it, so long as the sense is not altered.”

William Howard Taft wrote, after being subjected to editorial revision: “You have done very well by my article. You have made it much more readable by your rearrangement.”

Mr. Cleveland was very likely to let his interest in a subject run counter to the space exigencies of journalism; and Bok, in one instance, had to reduce one of his articles considerably. He explained the reason and enclosed the revision.

“I am entirely willing to have the article cut down as you suggest,” wrote the former President. “I find sufficient reason for this in the fact that the matter you suggest for elimination has been largely exploited lately. And in looking the matter over carefully, I am inclined to think that the article expurgated as you suggest will gain in unity and directness. At first, I feared it would appear a little ‘bobbed’ off, but you are a much better judge of that than I. … I leave it altogether to you.”

It was always interesting to Bok, as a study of mental processes, to note how differently he and some author with whom he would talk it over would see the method of treating some theme. He was discussing the growing unrest among American women with Rudyard Kipling at the latter’s English home; and expressed the desire that the novelist should treat the subject and its causes.

They talked until the early hours, when it was agreed that each should write out a plan, suggest the best treatment, and come together the next morning. When they did so, Kipling had mapped out the scenario of a novel; Bok had sketched out the headings of a series of analytical articles. Neither one could see the other’s viewpoint, Kipling contending for the greater power of fiction and Bok strongly arguing for the value of the direct essay. In this instance, the point was never settled, for the work failed to materialize in any form!

If the readers of The Ladies’ Home Journal were quick to support its editor when he presented an idea that appealed to them, they were equally quick to tell him when he gave them something of which they did not approve. An illustration of this occurred during the dance-craze that preceded the Great War. In 1914, America was dance-mad, and the character of the dances rapidly grew more and more offensive. Bok’s readers, by the hundreds, urged him to come out against the tendency.

The editor looked around and found that the country’s terpsichorean idols were Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle; he decided that, with their cooperation, he might, by thus going to the fountainhead, effect an improvement through the introduction, by the Castles, of better and more decorous new dances. Bok could see no reason why the people should not dance, if they wanted to, so long as they kept within the bounds of decency.

He found the Castles willing and eager to co-operate, not only because of the publicity it would mean for them, but because they were themselves not in favor of the new mode. They had little sympathy for the elimination of the graceful dance by the introduction of what they called the “shuffle” or the “bunny-hug,” “turkey-trot,” and other ungraceful and unworthy dances. It was decided that the Castles should, through Bok’s magazine and their own public exhibitions, revive the gavotte, the polka, and finally the waltz. They would evolve these into new forms and Bok would present them pictorially. A series of three double-page presentations was decided upon, allowing for large photographs so that the steps could be easily seen and learned from the printed page.

The magazine containing the first “lesson” was no sooner published than protests began to come in by the hundreds. Bok had not stated his object, and the public misconstrued his effort and purpose into an acknowledgment that he had fallen a victim to the prevailing craze. He explained in letters, but to no purpose. Try as he might, Bok could not rid the pages of the savor of the cabaret. He published the three dances as agreed, but he realized he had made a mistake, and was as much disgusted as were his readers. Nor did he, in the slightest degree, improve the dance situation. The public refused to try the new Castle dances, and kept on turkey-trotting and bunny-hugging.

The Ladies’ Home Journal followed the Castle lessons with a series of the most beautiful dances of Madam Pavlowa, the Russian dancer, hoping to remove the unfavorable impression of the former series. But it was only partially successful. Bok had made a mistake in recognizing the craze at all; he should have ignored it, as he had so often in the past ignored other temporary, superficial hysterics of the public. The Journal readers knew the magazine had made a mistake and frankly said so.

Which shows that, even after having been for over twenty-five years in the editorial chair, Edward Bok was by no means infallible in his judgment of what the public wanted or would accept.

No man is, for that matter.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 32

Posted in