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The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time

Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)

Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.

In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce

had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.

This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”

Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”

In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:

Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.

And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)

By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.

The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)

Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.

Methods

Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.

Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.

The List

1920-1929

Joseph Conrad. “A Great Novelist to Visit the United States.” April 7, 1923. Cover image.

Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.

George Bernard Shaw / Saint Joan. “Saint Joan.” December 24, 1923. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / All God’s Chillun Got Wings. “All God’s Chillun.” March 17, 1924. Cover image.

Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.

Booth Tarkington / Women. “Mr. Tarkington’s Ladies.” December 21, 1925. Cover image.

H. G. Wells / The World of William Clissold. “Wells, Wells, Wells.” September 20, 1926. Cover image.

Rudyard Kipling / Debits and Credits. “Loud Kipling.” September 27, 1926. Cover image.

Sinclair Lewis / Elmer Gantry. “Bible Boar.” March 14, 1927. Cover image.

Michael Arlen / Young Men in Love. “Mayfairian.” May 2, 1927. Cover image.

E. Phillips Oppenheim / Miss Brown of X. Y. O.. “Number 100.” September 12, 1927. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / Strange Interlude. “New Plays in Manhattan.” February 13, 1928. Cover image.

Edgar Wallace / People. “Master of Mass.” April 15, 1929. Cover image.

Robert Bridges / The Testament of Beauty. “Laureate Testifies.” December 2, 1929. Cover image.

1930-1939

Willa Cather / Shadows on the Rock. “Amen, Sinner.” August 3, 1931. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / Mourning Becomes Electra. “Greece in New England.” November 2, 1931. Cover image.

Philip Barry / The Animal Kingdom. “Angel Like Lindbergh.” January 25, 1932. Cover image.

Robinson Jeffers / Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems. “Harrowed Marrow.” April 4, 1932. Cover image.

T. E. Lawrence / The Odyssey [trans.]. “Scholar-Warrior.” November 28, 1932. Cover image.

Noel Coward / Design for Living. “First Englishman.” January 30, 1933. Cover image.

Gertrude Stein / The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. “Stem’s Way.” September 11, 1933. Cover image.

James Joyce / Ulysses. “Ulysses Lands.” January 29, 1934. Cover image.

Thomas Mann / Joseph and his Brothers. “Great Mann.” June 11, 1934. Cover image.

Upton Sinclair. “California Climax.” October 24, 1934. Cover image.

Maxwell Anderson / Valley Forge. “Washington, by Anderson.” December 10, 1934. Cover image.

Kathleen Norris / Woman in Love. “Golden Honeymoon.” January 28, 1935. Cover image.

John Buchan. “Canada’s New Governor General.” October 21, 1935. Cover image.

George Santayana / The Last Puritan. “Philosophic Footballer.” February 3, 1936. Cover image.

John Dos Passos / U.S.A. trilogy. “Private Historian.” August 10, 1936. Cover image.

Virginia Woolf / The Years. “How Time Passes.” April 12, 1937. Cover image.

Sidney Howard. “Meat Show Meeting.” June 7, 1937. Cover image.

Ernest Hemingway / To Have and To Have Not. “All Stones End . . . .” October 18, 1937. Cover image.

Holger Cahill. “In the Business District.” September 5, 1938. Cover image.

Andre Malraux / Man’s Hope. “News From Spain.” November 7, 1938. Cover image.

William Faulkner / The Wild Palms. “When the Dam Breaks.” January 23, 1939. Cover image.

James Joyce / Finnegans Wake. “Night Thoughts.” May 8, 1939. Cover image.

Carl Sandburg / Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. “Your Obt. Servt.” December 4, 1939. Cover image.

1940-1949

Kenneth Roberts / Oliver Wiswell. “Angry Man’s Romance.” November 25, 1940. Cover image.

Sinclair Lewis / Cass Timberlane. “Laureate of the Booboisie.” October 8, 1945. Cover image.

Craig Rice. “Mulled Murder, with Spice.” January 28, 1946. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / The Iceman Cometh. “The Ordeal of Eugene O’Neill.” October 21, 1946. Cover image.

C. S. Lewis / The Screwtape Letters. “Don v. Devil.” September 8, 1947. Cover image.

Rebecca West / The Meaning of Treason. “Circles of Perdition.” December 8, 1947. Cover image.

John P. Marquand / Point of No Return. “Spruce Street Boy.” March 7, 1949. Cover image.

1950-1959

T. S. Eliot / The Cocktail Party. “Mr. Eliot.” March 6, 1950. Cover image.

Robert Frost. “Pawky Poet.” October 9, 1950. Cover image.

James Thurber. “Priceless Gift of Laughter.” July 9, 1951. Cover image.

Graham Greene / The End of the Affair. “Shocker.” October 29, 1951. Cover image.

Joyce Carey / Prisoner of Grace. “Cheerful Protestant.” October 20, 1952. Cover image.

Thorton Wilder. “An Obliging Man.” January 12, 1953. Cover image.

Ernest Hemingway. “An American Storyteller.” December 13, 1954. Cover image.

Andre Malraux. “Man’s Quest.” July 18, 1955. Cover image.

Herman Wouk / Marjorie Morningstar. “The Wouk Mutiny.” September 5, 1955. Cover image.

James Gould Cozzens / By Love Possessed. “The Hermit of Lambertville.” September 2, 1957. Cover image.

Boris Pasternak / Doctor Zhivago. “The Passion of Yurii Zhivago.” December 15, 1958. Cover image.

1960-1969

J. D. Salinger / Franny and Zooey. “Sonny.” September 15, 1961. Cover image.

Tennessee Williams / The Night of the Iguana. “The Angel of the Odd.” March 9, 1962. Cover image.

Evgeny Evtushenko. “A Longing for Truth.” April 13, 1962. Cover image.

James Baldwin / The Fire Next Time. “The Root of the Negro Problem.” May 7, 1963. Cover image.

John Cheever / The Wapshot Scandal. “Ovid in Ossining.” March 27, 1964. Cover image.

Phyllis McGinley. “The Telltale Heart.” June 18, 1965. Cover image.

Robert Lowell. “The Second Chance.” June 2, 1967. Cover image.

John Updike / Couples. “View from the Catacombs.” April 26, 1968. Cover image.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn / In The First Circle. “The Writer as Russia’s Conscience
Headline
.” September 27, 1968. Cover image.

Vladimir Nabokov / Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. “Prospero’s Progress.” May 23, 1969. Cover image.

1970-1979

Gunter Grass / Local Anaesthetic. “The Dentist’s Chair as an Allegory in Life.” April 13, 1970. Cover image.

Richard Bach / Jonathan Livingston Seagull. “It’s a Bird! It’s a Dream! It’s Supergull!” November 13, 1972. Cover image.

Norman Mailer / Marilyn. “Two Myths Converge: NM Discovers MM.” July 16, 1973. Cover image.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn / The Gulag Archipelago. “An Artist Becomes an Exile.” February 25, 1974. Cover image.

Gore Vidal / 1876. “Laughing Cassandra.” March 1, 1976. Cover image.

Alex Haley / Roots. “Why ‘Roots’ Hit Home.” February 14, 1977. Cover image.

John Le Carre / The Honourable Schoolboy. “The Spy Who Came in for the Gold.” October 3, 1977. Cover image.

Mario Puzo / Fools Die. “Paperback Godfather.” August 28, 1978. Cover image.

1980-1989

John Irving / The Hotel New Hampshire. “Life Into Art.” August 31, 1981. Cover image.

John Updike / Bech is Back. “Perennial Promises Kept.” October 18, 1982. Cover image.

Garrison Keillor / Lake Wobegon Days. “Lonesome Whistle Blowing.” November 4, 1985. Cover image.

Stephen King / It. “King of Horror.” October 6, 1986. Cover image.

1990-1999

Scott Turow / Burden of Proof. “Burden of Success.” June 11, 1990. Cover image.

Michael Crichton / The Lost World. “Meet Mr. Wizard.” September 25, 1995. Cover image.

Toni Morrison / Paradise. “Paradise Found.” January 19, 1998. Cover image.

Tom Wolfe / A Man in Full. “Tom Wolfe Writes Again.” November 2, 1998. Cover image.

2000-2009

Stephen King / “Riding the Bullet.” “Everyone’s A Star.com.” March 27, 2000. Cover image.

2010

Jonathan Franzen / Freedom. “Great American Novelist.” August 23, 2010. Cover image.

Ask a Book Question (#58): Books for Fans of Deadwood

Poornima writes in:My husband recently stumbled across an HBO series called Deadwood in the library. It’s a television series set in the Black Hills (Sioux Country – Dakotas and Wyoming) around 1876 and features a whole assortment of historically famous/notorious characters including Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.I was wondering if you or your readers could direct us to some good historical fiction set in the period that captures the essence of Deadwood and the frontier spirit. It’s quite a fascinating aspect of American history.Your interest in historical fiction in the same line as HBO’s Deadwood brings Larry McMurtry to mind first. I’d be very surprised if David Milch, Deadwood’s creator, hadn’t read McMurtry. McMurtry’s historical fiction about the American West – Lonesome Dove, Anything for Billy, The Streets of Laredo – is wonderful, and besides sharing Deadwood’s historical milieu, it also shares its tone, that wonderful mix of emotional intensity, brutality, tenderness and humor.The book of McMurtry’s that has the most explicit overlap with Deadwood is Buffalo Girls. This novel intertwines the stories of several different figures whose lives coincide with the winding down of the Wild West. Calamity Jane – so wonderfully portrayed by Robin Weigert in Deadwood – is one of these characters. McMurtry’s stuff is historically responsible but it is also, as was Deadwood, clearly enchanted with the old West and interested in its mythic, larger-than-life personalities. Anything For Billy, which takes Billy the Kid as its protagonist, tells his life from the perspective of an Eastern businessman/writer of dime-novels.Willa Cather’s novels too might be of interest. Quite a lot of them are also set at moments of shift from wildness and lawlessness to “civilization” in various parts of North America. Death Comes to the Archbishop, one of my favorites, describes the settling of what is now New Mexico by French Catholic missionaries. Cather also offers fictionalized legends of the American West – Kit Carson figures in Death, for example. I also really like Shadows on the Rock, which is about the settling of Quebec. Cather’s work is a bit more lyrical and literary than McMurtry’s but, depending on your mood, they can be more satisfying for this.I also have two cinematic recommendations: One is an indie Western called The Ballad of Little Jo. It tells the story of a wealthy nineteenth-century society woman who flees the East and her family, disguises herself as a man and lives as a cowboy in the West. That’s if you’re interested in other artistic depictions of women in the West.A final recommendation is HBO’s Rome. I know that historically this is rather far afield but, apparently, David Milch originally imagined what became Deadwood as set in Rome at the time of Caesar. Such a show, however – Rome – was already in production when he pitched his idea and so he shifted the setting to nineteenth century Dakota territory. Though not Deadwood’s equal (I think Deadwood possibly the finest television show ever made), Rome shares something of Deadwood’s interest in lawlessness, or a different version of law – a more Hobbesian vision of human society in which power and aggression and ambition have more of a role to play.Also recommended by The Millions for fans of Deadwood:The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg ClarkMost of the books by Cormac McCarthyWelcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow (mood: brutal)Charles Portis’ wonderful True Grit (mood: deadpan)Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (mood: dreamlike)Oakley Hall’s Warlock

Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses

A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)

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