The neatly bound pages of magazines have the power to inform and inspire us, to shape our culture and our politics. Unlike other forms of journalism, they offer the space needed to tell timely stories in depth. The average viewer spends thirty-three seconds on a website; television doesn’t offer the time for in-depth stories on a regular basis; and newspapers work too fast to run long narrative pieces, except for those rare ones that are assigned with Pulitzer Prizes in mind. While we toss our newspapers into the recycling bin, we put our magazines on coffee tables, collect them and revisit them.
Magazines don’t simply spread the news; they can analyze it, reflect on it and underline it through the use of graphic materials—and they can become agents of change. From among the countless examples of the potency of magazine writing, we have selected ten that inspired readers and helped to reshape the world in the twentieth century.
1. “The Shame of the Cities,” by Lincoln Steffens,
McClure’s Magazine, series running October 1902 through November 1903.
The crusading reporting of Lincoln Steffens, avid to expose political corruption, gave rise to a style of journalism that became known as “muckraking.” His work highlighted the need for government reforms and political action to reduce the power of business corporations. This article helped bring about a number of important policy changes, such as the introduction of direct primary elections and secret ballots to undermine the political machines that controlled many cities. “When I set out to describe the corrupt systems of certain typical cities, I meant to show simply how the people were deceived and betrayed,” wrote Steffens. His words made a difference.
2. “The Promoters of the War Mania,” by Emma Goldman,
Mother Earth, March 1917.
This article was published in Emma Goldman’s own “Monthly Magazine Devoted to Social Science and Literature,” which contained some of the most radical writing in journalistic history and promoted the anarchist movement (until Goldman was deported to Soviet Russia during the “Red Scare” that followed World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution). The article calls out to the people of America to refuse to play any part in the military machine: “I for one will speak against war so long as my voice will last, now and during war.” Goldman helped to define the limits of dissent and free speech in America, using the magazine to effect change.
3. “Dachau: Experimental Murder,” by Martha Gellhorn,
Collier’s Weekly, June 23, 1945.
Martha Gellhorn was one of the first female war correspondents and one of the first journalists to report from the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany after its liberation. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice,” she wrote. “They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.’’ Her close observation, her attention to detail and her honest, subjective prose brought to life the unspeakable realities of Dachau for her readers. Eleanor Mills and Kira Cochrane, editors of the book Journalistas, say Gellhorn’s report “reawakens a sense of fresh horror in a way that a fifty-year-on commemoration of the now-familiar look of the camps can never do.”
4. “Hiroshima,” by John Hersey,
The New Yorker, August 31, 1946.
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time . . .” So began John Hersey’s piece about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The editors of The New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to his report, explaining that they felt that few had “comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.”
The article (which later became a book) was a shocking, informative, emotional—and eye-opening—account of the consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which is estimated to have killed more than 140,000 people and maimed many others. The story followed six survivors, re-creating, in dispassionate words, the horrors that each of them experienced that day. That issue of The New Yorker sold out within hours and became required reading in high schools throughout the United States.
5. “Extraordinary Exile,” by Rebecca West,
The New Yorker, September 7, 1946.
The distinguished English writer Rebecca West took magazine readers to the scene of the war criminals’ trials held in Nuremberg, Germany. It was a historic moment that readers could otherwise not have experienced. And West’s prose continues to resonate: “A machine was running down, a great machine, the greatest machine that has ever been created: the war machine, by which mankind, in spite of its infirmity of purpose and its frequent desire for death, has defended its life.”
6. “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson,
The New Yorker, June 16, 1962.
Rachel Carson demonstrated how effective one voice can be when amplified by the medium of the magazine. She set out to raise awareness of the poisons—and the misinformation—that the chemical industry was spreading. Ultimately, her article led to the birth of a worldwide environmental movement, beginning with the ban of DDT in the United States and a global treaty restricting the use of twelve other pesticides, which Carson described as the “elixirs of death.” Al Gore characterized “Silent Spring” as “a cry in the wilderness . . . that changed the course of history.”
7. “Our Invisible Poor,” by Dwight Macdonald,
The New Yorker, January 19, 1963.
Dwight Macdonald’s review of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States reignited awareness about poverty and caused a shift in public opinion. Most important, it is said to have motivated President John F. Kennedy to pour energy into what his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, would call a “war on poverty,” beginning with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which aimed “to mobilize the human and financial resources of the Nation to combat poverty in the United States.” “The book and the review together forced a sea change in American attitudes toward the poor,” wrote Jon Meacham in a 1993 issue of The Washington Monthly.
8. “Races: The Long March,”
Time, June 21, 1963.
During the years of the civil rights movement, many magazines gave a voice to the voiceless and spread valuable information, thereby helping to bring about momentous social change. Time’s un-bylined article documented the process of the movement and detailed the bleak reality of racial inequality in America: “The condition of the Negro in the U.S. today results not only from present discrimination. That can be abolished. It results also from past discrimination, which can be eroded away only by the slow trickle of time. Past discrimination has left scars upon the Negroes.”
9. “Future Shock,” by Tom Morganthau,
Newsweek, November 24, 1986.
Twenty-six years ago, when HIV/AIDS was still an obscure disease, Newsweek saw the importance of public awareness, running a cover story that called AIDS “one of the most difficult challenges ever faced by modern medicine.” This article revealed that thousands had already died from AIDS. Articles like these led to the creation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. More than eighty countries had reported more than 38,000 cases of AIDS to the World Health Organization by the end of 1986; and, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan gave his first speech about AIDS.
10. “Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich,
Harper’s Magazine, January 1999.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s consciousness-raising piece was based on her travels around the country, working in low-paying jobs and interviewing Americans who were laboring for poverty-level wages. “I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty and the world of low-wage work to know it’s not a place you want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear,” she wrote. Her story, later a book, transformed the way Americans perceived the working poor and, according to Mills and Cochrane, it “represents some of the most extensive and personal investigative work ever written.”
Even though this collection was intended to be comprehensive, it does not pretend to be definitive nor representative of the most influential magazine articles of the twentieth century. Therefore, The New York Review of Magazines invites you to question the selection and email your own personal favorites to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments will be displayed on the NYRM website (www.nyrm.org) in the near future. We look forward to your contribution.