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Edward Weeks
8/24/58

Edward Weeks, editor of the monthly magazine The Atlantic, talks to Wallace about "bigness," mass culture, tastemakers, advertising, and media.

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Transcript
THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW
Guest: Edward Weeks
8/24/58

WALLACE: This is Edward Weeks, the editor of the century old monthly magazine, The Atlantic, a social critic who says that America’s worship of “bigness” threatens to turn us – as individuals – into social and mental pygmies. He chided our big pictorial magazines for what he calls their “shocking invasions of privacy” and he charges that much of our cultural and commercial life is “vulgar.” We’ll find out why he says that in a moment.

ANNOUNCER The Mike Wallace Interview is presented by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund for the Republic brings you a special television series discussing the problems of Survival and Freedom in America.

WALLACE: Good evening, I’m Mike Wallace. Much has been said of late about “the opinion makers” in American society… the mass communications men.. the executives of publishing, advertising, television and the films. These are the men who supposedly mold public taste and public thinking… and they’ve come in for some strong whacks of late. Tonight’s guest is one of the critics of as well as one of the opinion makers. He’s Edward Weeks, editor of the monthly magazine The Atlantic.

WALLACE: Mr. Weeks, in your article in the current Atlantic called “How Big is One,” you are the latest critic to attack America’s bigness, our alleged worship of same … the trend here toward big corporations, big unions, mass communications, and we hear this kind of criticism constantly these days but where is the badness of bigness most obvious these days?

WEEKS: That a nice phrase of yours – the badness of bigness – I wish I’d put it in the article. Mike, isn’t it most obvious at the very moment in this octopus of the unions – the unions who have grown into such power and irresponsibility that they’re cynical in their attitude toward the public and toward the government, I mean we are seeing that every day, it seems to me, in this McClellan – Kennedy hearing… and I think the country is growing very much incensed at that form of bigness. Fifty, sixty years ago we had that same thing on our doorsteps when we were threatened with a plutocracy. Commodore Vanderbilt – “the public be damned,” Morgan, Hill, Harriman, Leland Stanford, Crocker, J. Gould – the empire builders. And again, they had to be curbed. We find ourselves constantly trying to put things together so big and then find some way of refereeing it so that it will be modified and be decent.

WALLACE: You attack bigness in labor, today – bigness in business 50 years ago. Nothing wrong with big business today?

WEEKS: Yes, indeed. There is. Look at those ironheads in Detroit.

WALLACE: Ironheads?

WEEKS: Yes, those wonderful tastemakers who produce these gaudy gondolas we’re supposed to drive around in. You’re not young enough to remember the Mercer and the Franklin and the early Buick and some of the cars I fell in love with when I couldn’t drive them – the Simplex, the Locomobile and the Peerless… when I was in college… and all of that beauty and difference of American manufacture has now been channeled into four or five stock models… they’re so big that you can’t back them into a normal garage, you can’t park them in a street, you can’t get more than fifteen miles a gallon out of the gas and every time your wife brushes a tree it costs all outdoors to have the fender fixed.

WALLACE: You’re attacking people who support…

WEEKS: Something very sacred, I know. But I think that a lot of American people would have bought some other form of car if it had been offered to them.

WALLACE: Well, what in the world … you’re talking about bigness of cars here but what in the world has that got to do with….

WEEKS: This is mass production… this is the result of mass production and of ironheads saying “people will buy this. We will offer it to them. This is the only thing they can buy.” And as a result more cars are being imported in America this year than were exported.

WALLACE: Big business can produce small cars. There is big business in other countries that is producing small cars….

WEEKS: And we are buying them.

WALLACE: In great numbers….

WEEKS: And I think it is time Detroit did that itself.

WALLACE: Well, this has nothing whatever to do….

WEEKS: Well, this is American taste… you see the tastemakers – you were talking about the tastemakers in that early go-in. When you go into mass production, again and again taste is affected. The newspapers… the opinion which is after all the thing… free competition of ideas is something that we cherish in every community… the town meeting…newspapers…. The right to be heard… the right to speak… the right to get up in Boston Common and yell your head off and criticize anybody that lives in Boston. And there used to be four or five newspapers in almost every American city. Today, you’re lucky if there are two.

WALLACE: Why?

WEEKS: Because of unions and rising costs and just the sheer expense of a paper putting out a paper and keeping it in operation has crowded out the weaklings… crowded out some of the very good ones.

WALLACE: Taxes are fairly important.

WEEKS: Taxes are terribly important. And taxes of course, again… what do they do to the individual? How much initiative are they robbing us of in this country?

WALLACE: Want to talk about any other kinds of bigness? Want to attack any other kind of bigness? The reason I say…..

WEEKS: Well, in my article, which you were kind enough to refer to. I refer to the effect, pressure of bigness on American taste… the pressure of bigness on American business and on the young men going into business and most of all on government… big government.

WALLACE: In the article… and as you can see what I’m trying to do now is to get the background against which possibly to throw a dart or two in your direction a little bit later… but in this article you complain about what you call America’s increasing appreciation of the commonplace, the vulgar. I’d like to hear a little bit more about it and how it is related to the problem of bigness.

WEEKS: I guess it was Emerson, more than a hundred and fifty, forty years ago, who in his great essay referred to this change in writing… that people were writing no longer for the elite about the elite… but writing about the commonplace and what he called the vulgar. And the vulgar was interchangeable in his thinking with the commonplace. And he rather approved… he thought this was a very good change. Now if Mr. Emerson came back, I’m not altogether sure he’d be very happy about what has been done to celebrate the vulgar in television, in the picture magazines, in Hollywood. There’s been a cheapening, a lessening of quality.

WALLACE: Brought on by bigness, Mr. Weeks?

WEEKS: I think so. Brought on by the desire for the larger and larger audience… the bigger rating you can get… the more thousand… the more millions of people who can hear… and what are the common denominators? The common denominators today seem to be today sort of a low emotional … low common denominator of emotionalism. A love of cruelty… just listen to the murder programs that used to be on radio…. Probably still are though I no longer listen to them. I was Chairman of a Peabody Committee for fifteen years. And I used to have to bang in my ears with these radio programs… the numbers of murders… and slugs… and thugs…. And so forth.

WALLACE: All right, we’ve taken off at almost everything here except your own field, publishing… particularly magazine and book publishing. Are they afflicted with bigness?

WEEKS: Oh sure. We run after popularity and the gods of popularity just as fast as anybody else. And….

WALLACE: How does it manifest itself?

WEEKS: It manifested itself most obviously in the paperbacks. The paperbacks were a new invention that came right to the fore right after the war. And all of a sudden here we were producing 30 – 35 – then 40 million paperbacks a year. And at the outset the publishers deliberately produced – I’m a little ashamed of this – sexy books, books of sadism and brutality, books in which the heroine was always being somewhat unbuttoned at the front and usually was being pursued by a man or running just as hard as she could in the wrong direction.

WALLACE: And what about magazines… you talk about paperback books… what about the magazines, some of the good, the mass circulation magazines?

WEEKS: Well, in pictures … I think the invasion of privacy that’s gone on in the pictorial magazines at times just dents the eyeballs… really makes you shudder.

WALLACE: What do you mean by the invasion of privacy?

WEEKS: Oh, well, here’s a mother caught just as her child is being extricated from the truck that’s crushed it. And you just get that terrible look of her face which ought to be in a private room. Or you see a series of naked bodies laid out on a field after a big air disaster and the caption says that the third body to the right is the body of Miss X whose voice you heard at the Metropolitan and whose singing and acting you loved. This is something that shouldn’t be….

WALLACE: Would you object to this same kind of candor put between the covers of a hard covered book?

WEEKS: Yes.

WALLACE: You would object to it?

WEEKS: Well, I think it’s … if it’s naming real people… sure I would. And mind you I’m not particularly in love with the amount of sex that’s found its way into a good deal of fiction. The readers can get used to anything. You only have to compare “From Here to Eternity” to “Jurgen” to realize how wide our tolerance has grown. Readers are getting a little tired of this.

WALLACE: You also wrote in your article about television commercials… you don’t like some of them.

WEEKS: I certainly don’t. I don’t think there’s another nation in the world that would have such patience with them as we do. These dreadful singing commercials and then these commercials that just go out deliberately to abuse and misuse the English language. Why popularize the wrong things? Why popularize stupidity? Does it really catch the public attention?

WALLACE: Well, it must Mr. Weeks….

WEEKS: It must if they’re offered nothing else.

WALLACE: Well, now wait…. Everybody seems to be thriving on this… and when I say thriving, I mean economically thriving. Certainly the motive for all of this bigness is economic motive.

WEEKS: Yes, that’s right. Mass production and of course we are masters of it. We’re very ambivalent, you know… we want it but we also want to be individuals. That’s my trouble… it is the trouble of most Americans.

WALLACE: But we’re not after bigness for bigness sake… we’re not after mass production for mass production’s sake, are we… or are we? Are we simply not after it for power’s sake and for money’s sake?

WEEKS: Yes, because of the economics of our life, it’s the only way that we can continue to operate.

WALLACE: Now, there’s the point. Thanks to mass production and bigness we have almost unlimited material benefits in some very good things.

WEEKS: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

WALLACE: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

WEEKS: And all I’m saying is watch out they don’t ride us down the wrong road.

WALLACE: Well, now wait. Some very good things come from bigness. Drugs… new homes… labor saving devices… food… all kinds… you are not suggesting a return to the middle ages?

WEEKS: Not at all. Nor is my article intended to be a nostalgic, oh-dear-how-I-wish-I-lived-forty-years-ago… because I find this a very exciting time.

WALLACE: All right, then let me ask you - what are you suggesting?

WEEKS: I’m suggesting that we ought to be more alert to what bigness is doing to us. And that we ought, if you like, to steel ourselves against it and be more aware of these calluses and these habits which are formed by our worship of bigness.

WALLACE: All right. I have not intention of doing a straight commercial for The Atlantic here and now but this would seem to be one isolated instance of an organization which said “Bigness – hands off.” Correct?

WEEKS: Yes. Although I want it to be bigger.

WALLACE: You want it to be bigger. What is your circulation now?

WEEKS: I’ll begin at the beginning. The Atlantic, then I took it in 1938, it had 100,000. I now have two and a half times that number of people listing to me. And I don’t know how many more reading me… reading the magazine that is.

WALLACE: All right. Let’s say a quarter of a million, 300,000 people take your magazine.

WEEKS: That’s right. And I want to leave it to my successor at a half a million.

WALLACE: Why? Why not ten million? Why not five million?

WEEKS: I think I’d have to change the magazine too much, Mike, if I made it ten million, if we made it ten million. I’d have to put in pictures. I’d have to dilute some of the hard reading. I’d have to cut out a good deal of controversy. We’re a non-partisan magazine but we never hesitate to hit a reader on the nose. And we represent points of view which often infuriate both the readers and the advertisers. But they are willing to stay with it and they think it’s good for them in the end.

WALLACE: What financial danger … specifically… what financial danger, if any…. Does a magazine like yours run when it publishes controversial articles?

WEEKS: It’s harder for us to attract Madison Avenue. The advertising agencies don’t regard us as quite as safe as we ought to be. The head of one big agency after he’s read this article that you have been kind enough to refer to went down the list of people that I had enumerated at the very end as examples of Americans who were big and who were therefore shaping – standing off this force, you see – he shook his head and said there were not enough Republicans there. Well, …. we lose advertising because of our outspokenness and I don’t think it should make us any less candid.

WALLACE: Can you think of any time when you have actually lost advertising because of something that you printed in your magazine?

WEEKS: I can think of this thing both ways. I can think of the effect of an article when it was for the good and … to answer your first question, we had a contract for twelve color pages for a big Midwest corporation and we’d run one of them. In an issue that came out that should have held …. That held indeed…. Their second color advertisement… we had an article by Ralph McGill, the famous southern liberal. Ralph had gone abroad to Russia with a group of two other journalists to meet with Russian journalists and to see if there couldn’t be a more open exchange between the two sets of journalists. They were snowbound with these Russian opposite numbers in an airport for a day and half. They talked and drank vodka and talked about their respective problems and the Russians became very frank in their criticism of American newspapers, about which they knew a great deal. This fascinated Ralph, and as I’d asked him to do an article about the trip, he reproduced some of the Russian criticism of specific American newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and I guess the Boston Herald and various other papers. They were quite aware of the editorial line and they went after them hammer and tongs and said that we had a biased press, you see. This led to the immediate cancellation of this advertising contract with this big Mid-Western firm. He just called up and said “any magazine that would run an article doesn’t deserve to carry our copy – out.”

WALLACE: Does it happen frequently?

WEEKS: No, not frequently – and he came back, eventually. He learned - got religion and came back… but not with that contract… he was gone for about ten years.

WALLACE: Let’s turn to mass circulation magazines…and mass culture in general for a minute here. The social critic Dwight McDonald has written this about the mass circulation magazines. He says, “The same issue will contain a serious exposition of atomic theory… alongside a disquisition on Rita Hayworth’s love life… photos of starving Korean children … and of sleek models wearing adhesive brassieres … nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller skating horse.” And he concludes that “such publications destroy all values, since value judgments imply discrimination and there is no discrimination there. Everything is thrown together.” What’s your opinion?

WEEKS: If I am asked to read an article about the Galindex outrage and right smack against it, there’s a great color advertisement of a Yum Yum cake mix…. There is something a little distracting, one against the other… the article can’t be as good as that if that silly advertisement is right there impinging … you know what I mean. I’m … I’m…

WALLACE: I know what you’re driving at. I can’t say that I agree. I don’t see why it necessarily is so. You are a discriminating person… I am a discriminating person. And if I want to read about Galindex and judge on the substance of the article, fine and if I don’t want to read about YumYum, that’s my privilege.

WEEKS: That’s right. But I think that there ought to be more respect made for the leading articles in any magazine and that they should be treated as things to be taken seriously and the readers should have no doubt about it. I think he sometimes does have doubt about it, if as McDonald said, a serious article is followed by several pictures of Miss Universe.

WALLACE: Well, there are lights and shades…..

WEEKS: Indeed and I’m not saying that you have to devote yourself to hard things in life… entertainment is half the fun of reading.

WALLACE: And there are all kinds of entertainment for all kinds of people. And because they circulate to three or four or five million people, they have to in order to stay alive, they have to appeal to all kinds of people….

WEEKS: That’s their justification… that’s what they say.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this. You complain… you have complained about vulgar commercials and gaudy cars and reading matter… you say all of this degrades public taste. Has it degraded your taste, Mr. Weeks?

WEEKS: It makes it more difficult for me to get the things I want.

WALLACE: I don’t follow that.

WEEKS: Well, I’d like to get a well-made small American car that would go 25 miles or 30 miles and would have some of the assets in it that I see in the foreign cars. Which I am more and more tempted to buy. Yet I want to ride American.

WALLACE: In your reading matter?

WEEKS: Of course it irks me, Mike, to see as much space taken up in any spin-around of paperback books or even hard cover books …. So much space is given to the things I’ve been talking about, sadism and who-done-its, and, uh, soft love stories.

WALLACE: What I’m getting at is this. Earlier you blamed bigness for some of our cultural problems, yet you wouldn’t want to give up mass production and return to the cave.

WEEKS: No, you can’t. You can depend on it. It may be our only source of survival.

WALLACE: Well now simply because …. Exactly, exactly ….

WEEKS: We have to have this when we’re in desperation.

WALLACE: Simply because some of the products of our age are vulgar it hasn’t lowered your tastes, it hasn’t made you a less discriminating man, it hasn’t lured you away from serious reading, it hasn’t really hurt the quality of your magazine. So, in a sense I find it difficult to understand your problems.

WEEKS: It hasn’t hurt the quality of my magazine but it’s given me a real fight, Mike. I’ve had a real fight on my hands every year. And the people that run the magazine with me. To keep building. We couldn’t live if we didn’t find more of our same kind.

WALLACE: We all have fights in our own separate ways. But the fact of the matter is that you have some from 100,000 to almost 300,000.

WEEKS: In the face of an ever dwindling margin of profit.

WALLACE: Then why blame many of the makers of mass culture, and the mass culture itself, for debasing public taste. If a reader wants to read The Atlantic he can read it. If not, he can choose among Harper’s or Life or the Saturday Evening Post or WhizBang or whatever.

WEEKS: Mike, I believe the taste of the American public is higher and better, and capable of far more shades of demand that the tastemakers will allow. In their concentration on a few products, they don’t give the minorities nearly enough consideration.

WALLACE: That’s what you’re talking about. The shades …. Of demand.

WEEKS: The shades of taste.

WALLACE: Bigness then…..

WEEKS: Regiments. It regiments.

WALLACE: Of course, there are people I suppose, who will disagree with you abut public tastes. You have been complaining a little about public tastes now, but public tastes have not really been very much to brag about over the years. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens described how one of the favorite public pastimes was watching public hangings.

WEEKS: Yes, but England had no public schools and haven’t had it. But we’ve had public schools for 100 years in this country. We’ve been … We’ve been …We’ve been giving people literacy. Russia says how much they’ve done in forty years. We ought to say how much we’ve done in century. Well, we don’t say it enough, and we haven’t done enough.

WALLACE: Well, now, wait. This brings us into another area, this brings us into another area, . Russia talks – we talk – about the tremendous strides Russian education is making. We talk about Russian strides in appreciation of the arts, of music, and so forth.

WEEKS: No, not in literature.

WALLACE: No, not so much in literature.

WEEKS: In the ballet.

WALLACE: In the ballet….

WEEKS: Not in the arts that are policed.

WALLACE: What I’m suggesting is this. You certainly do not want to regiment everybody into buying The Atlantic Monthly.

WEEKS: No, it wouldn’t be The Atlantic if I did.

WALLACE: So that perhaps the point is not well taken about Russia, because there is a regimentation of public tastes there. They try to make the public taste elevate itself but they do it in a regimented fashion.

WEEKS: I’m saying that too much, too much of our education recently, over the last four decades, has gone into adjustment and too little into excellence. This I think is a great falling off in something that is very elemental in us.

WALLACE: Would you disagree with a historian and philosopher Ortega y Gassett who has described two main classes of people – on the one hand he talks about an elite who make great demands of themselves, piling up difficulties and duties, and on the other hand, the majority, the masses, who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are. They are mere buoys that float on society, and don’t impose on themselves any effort toward perfection. Is that reasonably accurate?

WEEKS: I’ll accept that, and in fact, I think that’s a wonderful book, “The Revolt of the Masses,” from which you’ve taken that quotation. And it was a telegram to mankind, you know, of a change that had taken place. The enormous increase in birthrate had brought about this new change in our society and it’s affected all of us. But all I would like to add to what he says is that there is a bridge between – a constant bridge – and a flowing over this bridge from the mass man to the class man. And it’s to build that bridge stronger that I work and live and dedicate myself to The Atlantic.

WALLACE: Let me put this to you, though. Could the reason for the concern of so many intellectuals like yourself about what the masses do and think, could this be the reason most intellectuals in this country, I think you will agree, are generally of liberal, left of center, persuasion? Right?

WEEKS: Yes.

WALLACE: And they favor increased government participation in life, in our lives. The government is elected by the masses, the intellectuals want the masses to think the way the intellectuals think, therefore, if we can get the masses to reading and thinking the way the intellectuals think, then….

WEEKS: Ipso Facto, the masses will elect and make decisions in their elections which are absolutely nation-saving. We have to depend upon the masses for value judgments and for not being misled by synthetic guitar-strumming candidates, whose speeches are written for them by some boy down the street.

WALLACE: What you’re talking about is a kind of intellectual ward healing that goes among people like Edward Weeks and so forth.

WEEKS: That’s right. That’s right. I can give you a case in point of that, Mike. Up our way – Boston is a small enough community, you know, so that there is always one leading man. The leading boss and citizen used to be Major Higginson, in the old days the fellow who installed the symphony, and he was followed by Charles Francis Adams. This was the Charles Francis Adams, who I suppose, who was of the eighth generation straight down, whose family has given us two presidents and he had the same qualities of his forebears. He was as brisk, he was as intelligent, he was as honorable, he had as much leadership, yet the only office that he held in national life was Secretary of the Treasury, appointed by Hoover. Now, he could have been elected and it wasn’t because the Adams family had deteriorated. They haven’t changed a bit really. It’s because the electorate has grown away from the type of candidate that the Adams’ were and are. I think that’s very serious. I think liberals worry about that.

WALLACE: Liberals do worry…..

WEEKS: We’ve got to get more young people of real strength into the government.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this. You say liberals worry. I know one liberal, of sorts, certainly, who doesn’t worry, and says, about this kind of thing, specifically he says so. Last year we asked the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright what he thought of the majority of people, the people who don’t care about this kind of work and ideas, and said this, he said, “I don’t think they matter as far as I’m concerned. They’re not for me, why should I be for them? The common man,” Frank Lloyd Wright, “ is a block to progress.” What about that?

WEEKS: I don’t go along with that. Do you?

WALLACE: Do I? No, I don’t.

WEEKS: No. This is a time when we need every incentive for the common man to be uncommon. And when, indeed, our future’s going to depend upon our finding enough of them who are uncommon, uncommon in their quality, in the leadership, and in their audacity and invention….

WALLACE: Mr. Weeks, who do you believe are the uncommon men to whom – and women – to whom we can and should look today?

WEEKS: Well, at the end of my article, I listed quite a number of them. And I listed them in such a way that I hoped other people would make up their own lists, you know. These were people, none of them in national life, none of them presidents, but people who had worked at their own dedication over a period of time until they had created such a force, a work force….

WALLACE: Who are the people in public life whom you admire?

WEEKS: Well, Ralph Bunche, Stevenson….. I respect Dulles for his stamina and for the dedication, but I wish he had a capacity of keeping us more informed and of keeping his allies more informed of the motives and what’s going on in his mind.

WALLACE: You mentioned at the very beginning, that in that list there were very few Republicans or few Republicans…

WEEKS: This fellow just said there weren’t enough Republicans. There are Republicans in there.

WALLACE: Let me ask you… were there …why weren’t there, in his estimation, enough Republicans?

WEEKS: Well, I suppose he wanted it studded with Republicans. But I put in that list a man like….

WALLACE: You won’t answer me … You know what I’m after.

WEEKS: Frank Laubach. There is one of the great American missionaries. And his desire was to go out and teach the most humble people how to read their own language. Feeling that if they could read their own language, then they would come to an understanding of this whole new world. He’s taught 60,000,000 people how to read.

WALLACE: And that, in a sense, is your mission too.

WEEKS: Yes.

WALLACE: Edward Weeks, I thank you for coming from Boston and spending this half hour with us. On the related issues of mass culture, public opinion and the ultimate nature of democracy, there are obviously conflicting views which must be resolved. But one view would seem undebatable. As Edward Weeks has written referring to our century of the common man, “the longer I live in it,” he has said, “the more I wonder whether we are producing the un-common man in sufficient quantity.” Till next week, Mike Wallace, good night.