The End of Thirty Years’ Editorship: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 36

On the voyage home, Edward Bok decided that, now the war was over, he would ask his company to release him from the editorship of The Ladies’ Home Journal. His original plan had been to retire at the end of a quarter of a century of editorship, when in his fiftieth year. He was, therefore, six years behind his schedule. In October, 1919, he would reach his thirtieth anniversary as editor, and he fixed upon this as an appropriate time for the relinquishment of his duties.

He felt he had carried out the conditions under which the editorship of the magazine had been transferred to him by Mrs. Curtis, that he had brought them to fruition, and that any further carrying on of the periodical by him would be of a supplementary character. He had, too, realized his hope of helping to create a national institution of service to the American woman, and he felt that his part in the work was done.

He considered carefully where he would leave an institution which the public had so thoroughly associated with his personality, and he felt that at no point in its history could he so safely transfer it to other hands. The position of the magazine in the public estimation was unquestioned; it had never been so strong. Its circulation not only had outstripped that of any other monthly periodical, but it was still growing so rapidly that it was only a question of a few months when it would reach the almost incredible mark of two million copies per month. With its advertising patronage exceeding that of any other monthly, the periodical had become, probably, the most valuable and profitable piece of magazine property in the world.

The time might never come again when all conditions would be equally favorable to a change of editorship. The position of the magazine was so thoroughly assured that its progress could hardly be affected by the retirement of one editor, and the accession of another. There was a competent editorial staff, the members of which had been with the periodical from ten to thirty years each. This staff had been a very large factor in the success of the magazine. While Bok had furnished the initiative and supplied the directing power, a large part of the editorial success of the magazine was due to the staff. It could carry on the magazine without his guidance.

Moreover, Bok wished to say good-bye to his public before it decided, for some reason or other, to say good-bye to him. He had no desire to outstay his welcome. That public had been wonderfully indulgent toward his shortcomings, lenient with his errors, and tremendously inspiring to his best endeavor. He would not ask too much of it. Thirty years was a long tenure of office, one of the longest, in point of consecutively active editorship, in the history of American magazines.

He had helped to create and to put into the life of the American home a magazine of peculiar distinction. From its beginning it had been unlike any other periodical; it had always retained its individuality as a magazine apart from the others. It had sought to be something more than a mere assemblage of stories and articles. It had consistently stood for ideals; and, save in one or two instances, it had carried through what it undertook to achieve. It had a record of worthy accomplishment; a more fruitful record than many imagined. It had become a national institution such as no other magazine had ever been. It was indisputably accepted by the public and by business interests alike as the recognized avenue of approach to the intelligent homes of America.

Edward Bok was content to leave it at this point.

He explained all this in December, 1918, to the Board of Directors, and asked that his resignation be considered. It was understood that he was to serve out his thirty years, thus remaining with the magazine for the best part of another year.

In the material which The Journal now included in its contents, it began to point the way to the problems which would face women during the reconstruction period. Bok scanned the rather crowded field of thought very carefully, and selected for discussion in the magazine such questions as seemed to him most important for the public to understand in order to face and solve its impending problems. The outstanding question he saw which would immediately face men and women of the country was the problem of Americanization. The war and its after-effects had clearly demonstrated this to be the most vital need in the life of the nation, not only for the foreign-born but for the American as well.

The more one studied the problem the clearer it became that the vast majority of American-born needed a refreshing, and, in many cases, a new conception of American ideals as much as did the foreign-born, and that the latter could never be taught what America and its institutions stood for until they were more clearly defined in the mind of the men and women of American birth.

Bok went to Washington, consulted with Franklin K. Lane, secretary of the interior, of whose department the Government Bureau of Americanization was a part. A comprehensive series of articles was outlined; the most expert writer, Esther Everett Lape, who had several years of actual experience in Americanization work, was selected; Secretary Lane agreed personally to read and pass upon the material, and to assume the responsibility for its publication.

With the full and direct co-operation of the Federal Bureau of Americanization, the material was assembled and worked up with the result that, in the opinion of the director of the Federal Bureau, the series proved to be the most comprehensive exposition of practical Americanization adapted to city, town, and village, thus far published.

The work on this series was one of the last acts of Edward Bok’s editorship; and it was peculiarly gratifying to him that his editorial work should end with the exposition of that Americanization of which he himself was a product. It seemed a fitting close to the career of a foreign-born Americanized editor.

The scope of the reconstruction articles now published, and the clarity of vision shown in the selection of the subjects, gave a fresh impetus to the circulation of the magazine; and now that the government’s embargo on the use of paper had been removed, the full editions of the periodical could again be printed. The public responded instantly.

The result reached phenomenal figures. The last number under Bok’s full editorial control was the issue of October, 1919. This number was oversold with a printed edition of two million copies—a record never before achieved by any magazine. This same issue presented another record unattained in any single number of any periodical in the world. It carried between its covers the amazing total of over one million dollars in advertisements.

This was the psychological point at which to stop. And Edward Bok did. Although his official relation as editor did not terminate until January, 1920, when the number which contained his valedictory editorial was issued, his actual editorship ceased on September 22, 1919. On that day he handed over the reins to his successor.

As Bok was, on that day, about to leave his desk for the last time, it was announced that a young soldier whom he “had met and befriended in France” was waiting to see him. When the soldier walked into the office he was to Bok only one of the many whom he had met on the other side. But as the boy shook hands with him and said: “I guess you do not remember me, Mr. Bok,” there was something in the eyes into which he looked that startled him. And then, in a flash, the circumstances under which he had last seen those eyes came to him.

“Good heavens, my boy, you are not one of those two boys in the little hut that I—”

“To whom you read the poem ‘Passing Souls,’ that evening. Yes, sir, I’m the boy who had hold of your left hand. My bunkie, Ben, went West that same evening, you remember.”

“Yes,” replied the editor, “I remember; I remember only too well,” and again Bok felt the hand in his relax, drop from his own, and heard the words: “Saviour-meet-me-on-my way.”

The boy’s voice brought Bok back to the moment.

“It’s wonderful you should remember me; my face was all bound up—I guess you couldn’t see anything but my eyes.”

“Just the eyes, that’s right,” said Bok. “But they burned into me all right, my boy.”

“I don’t think I get you, sir,” said the boy.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Bok replied. “You couldn’t, boy, not until you’re older. But, tell me, how in the world did you ever get out of it?”

“Well, sir,” answered the boy, with that shyness which we all have come to know in the boys who actually did, “I guess it was a close call, all right. But just as you left us, a hospital corps happened to come along on its way to the back and Miss Nelson—the nurse, you remember?—she asked them to take me along. They took me to a wonderful hospital, gave me fine care, and then after a few weeks they sent me back to the States, and I’ve been in a hospital over here ever since. Now, except for this thickness of my voice that you notice, which Doc says will be all right soon, I’m fit again. The government has given me a job, and I came here on leave just to see my parents up-State, and I thought I’d like you to know that I didn’t go West after all.”

Fifteen minutes later, Edward Bok left his editorial office for the last time.

But as he went home his thoughts were not of his last day at the office, nor of his last acts as editor, but of his last caller—the soldier-boy whom he had left seemingly so surely on his way “West,” and whose eyes had burned into his memory on that fearful night a year before!

Strange that this boy should have been his last visitor!

As John Drinkwater, in his play, makes Abraham Lincoln say to General Grant:

“It’s a queer world.”

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 35

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