Review: A portrait of the Golden Age of journalism
I remember listening to a radio interview with William F. Buckley Jr. some years back. The interviewer brought up Lance Morrow’s name in one way or another, and Buckley mentioned in his response that Morrow was the finest essayist in the country. It was a judgment beyond dispute. Morrow’s essays and stories in Time magazine were exemplary. (His work continues today in City Journal and The Wall Street Journal.) With exceptionally articulate prose and a cultivated mind, Morrow works through problems, questions and issues in his essays with rigor and insight.
Over the years, Morrow has also published noteworthy books, including, among others, memoirs (The Chief: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons and Heart: A Memoir) and history (The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948). With this new book, The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism, memoir and history come together in an appealing combination.
Eschewing a sustained narrative in favor of a penetrating series of essay-length vignettes and portraits, Morrow states his aim in this short book in modest terms: “I want to discuss a few representative men and women and to offer a few scenes to give the flavor of the time.” And yet the result is an absorbing depiction far richer than a mere flavoring. What Morrow adroitly evokes, in fewer than 200 pages, is an entire era of American journalism.
For those who remember the once-enormous influence of magazines, The Noise of Typewriters is a concise and riveting portrait.
The familiar eloquence of Morrow’s reflections and musings is in healthy supply:
The present teems with error and myth and deliberate lies, which are our daily bread—our consolation, entertainment, our script and our self-conception, our identities, the stories we tell ourselves. The present may be harder to grasp than the past, for the past at least offers the perspectives of experience, an awareness of what consequences followed from what actions in the past. The Atlantis of my youth—the America of the twentieth century—is easier to grasp than the twenty-first century of my old age, when machines grow more and more precise in their grasp of the universe and human brains become more and more confused—and, paradoxically, more parochial, more hysterical.
This sort of writing is the reason that Morrow is in that exceedingly small club of journalists worth rereading. One looks in vain online these days for anything even close to this kind of prose. This is not the language of the ephemera of the internet.
In his discussions of “a few representative men and women,” Morrow displays a novelist’s ability to present character. Whether commenting on H. L. Mencken (“He taught middle-class Americans to dissociate themselves from—to repudiate—their origins”), John Hersey (his “act of contrition [in his book Hiroshima] seems, on reflection, to be morally incomplete and even a little bit fatuous”), Otto Friedrich (“He was ferociously productive. His shoes were sometimes worn down at the heels. He had a professorial air of self-neglect (his teeth needed cleaning)—and yet, great pride, almost arrogance.”), or a number of others, Morrow writes with a balanced appreciation for and criticism of the significant—and sometimes significantly flawed—work of each. His aesthetic judgments can also refresh: For instance, Morrow notes that he “detested Allen Ginsberg’s work.”
But the figure who predominates in The Noise of Typewriters is Henry Luce, the estimable founder of the Time empire and the man who shaped the American mind at the highest levels for decades. (At one time, an early copy of each issue of Time was taken every week by motorcycle courier directly to the White House.)
Though, as Morrow says, “He is largely forgotten now,” he identifies Luce as “the most important journalist of the twentieth century.” Morrow places him perfectly in context: “Luce was the old America, the twentieth-century version—the America before the very different America we have now. He expressed—and his magazines manifested—the dominant, middle-class American civilization from, let us say, the stock market crash in 1929 to the fall of Saigon in 1975.”
Morrow is at his finest in discussing this truly towering figure of American journalism and all its complexity; he writes, for example, that Luce “bristled with energy, an electric aura—a radiation of power that had in it, as power does, an organizing core of narcissism. A sardonic intelligence.” This depiction of “the Henry Ford of magazines” is a worthwhile act of cultural memory.
It is undoubtedly true that to younger readers, Morrow’s book on the era of magazine journalism and some of its ablest practitioners will be largely unintelligible, so radically transformed is the media today by the evanescence of the internet. But for those who remember the once-enormous influence of magazines, The Noise of Typewriters is a concise and riveting portrait, animated at all points by the highest intelligence, of that vanished world.