The Unsophisticated Past

City Journal has a long (well, it is City Journal) piece comparing women’s magazines of 1963 to those of today, and finds the material different:

Flip through the weighty 50-year-old issues, and you’ll soon feel, literally, a massive cultural shift in what women expect from their periodicals. In 1963, consuming a magazine could take days. Early that year, Good Housekeeping serialized Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the French Revolution, The Glass-Blowers, cramming much of it into a mere three issues. In May, GH ran a large portion of Edmund Fuller’s novel The Corridor, a feat that required stretching the magazine to 274 text-heavy pages. Redbook’s March 1963 issue featured Hortense Calisher’s novel Textures of Life and five short stories, a level of fiction ambition that even The New Yorker rarely attempts now. There is verse, too. At one point, a dense page of du Maurier’s text makes room for Catherine MacChesney’s “From the Window,” letting Good Housekeeping readers experience poetry and prose at the same time. Marion Lineaweaver’s ode to the coming spring in LHJ (“The wind is milk / So perfectly fresh, cool / Smooth on the tongue”) was one of six poems in the March 1963 issue alone.

That erudition is all the more surprising when you consider that women’s magazines reached a far larger fraction of the population in 1963 than they do now. Good Housekeeping hit a circulation of about 5.5 million readers in the mid-1960s, at a time when there were about 50 million women between the ages of 18 and 64 in the country. Ladies’ Home Journal reached close to 7 million readers. Editors assumed, then, that a hefty proportion of American women wanted to ponder poetic metaphor.

Apparently, those women also wanted to read serious nonfiction. Betty Friedan’s manifesto The Feminine Mystique, widely credited with launching Second Wave feminism, was helped in its quest for bestseller status when women’s magazines like LHJ ran prepublication excerpts. In March 1963, Redbook covered a doctor’s agonizing decision to leave Castro’s Cuba after becoming disillusioned with the socialist revolution.

That is, in 1963, women’s magazines expected a higher level of reader sophistication among housewives than you can probably expect from the college-educated people today. It’s not just women’s magazines.

I read a lot of older books, including those from the first six decades of the 20th century, and the books very often include allusions to classical literature that would pass over the heads of many book (or Kindle) readers today (see also my review for Please Don’t Eat The Daisies).

What do we have in our reading material today that makes us think we’re more sophisticated than those backwards people of white bread America? Snark. We have catty comments and sarcasm serving as an in-joke that puts down others, often celebrities (who otherwise should use their celebrity wisdom to tell us how to live). And because we merely think we’re better than they are, we must be. No allusions to works with deeper themes or even understanding of the treatment of more meaningful insights needed!

(Link via …. uh, someone. Sorry, it was lost in my tabs for 24 hours, I think.)