All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 1981

A Reviewers Notebook: Writing for Fortune

American business, in the early Nineteen Thirties, was definitely under the gun. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis had, for a decade, been undermining it with their satire: the figure of Babbitt stood out among the booboisie, and it was a moot point whether Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match king, or Samuel Insull of Chicago was the greatest villain. The depression completed what the satirists had begun, and when Franklin D. Roosevelt took off against the economic royalists, no body outside of the Liberty League dared say him nay. The Liberty League was naturally dismissed as an interested party.

Like practically everyone of my college generation I joined the anti-business procession. The mood was certainly pervasive—even Henry Hazlitt and Elmer Davis supported Norman Thomas, the socialist candidate for President, in 1932, rationalizing their action as a “protest vote.”

Who among theorists was prepared to defend old economic values at the time? Carl Snyder, maybe, and Garet Garrett. But the Austrians hadn’t yet come to our shores; there was, as yet, no Ludwig von Mises seminar in New York. “Planning” was the by-word in The New Republic and The Nation, and George Soule, Stuart Chase and Rexford Tugwell were, in Tugwell’s phrase, busy “rolling up their sleeves to make America over.”

It would be a long time before the “freedom philosophy,” as a theory, was to have its principled defenders. But a strange thing happened to some of us. A beetle-browed man named Henry Luce, the son of a Christian missionary to China, had, during the last days of the Coolidge boom, planned a magazine of business that was to be called Fortune. Ironically, its first issue, dated February 1930, hit the mails just when the stock market collapse of October 1929 was being felt.

The Luce Adventure

Luce had a philosophy, all right, but his interest in journalism was predominantly an interest in facts. The facts were flippantly exploited in his news magazine, Time. For Fortune he wanted something different—a magazine that would, with proper gravity, treat business as an adventurous drama, something worthy of the efforts of good men. That was all he had in mind at the start—the first editorial expression of a point of view in the magazine came in Roosevelt’s second term, when Russell Davenport, the managing editor, started a monthly department called Business and Government.

I went to work for Fortune in 1936 still filled with the average New York City intellectual’s scorn for the businessman. Nobody tried to convert me to anything: the idea, as Luce said, was that the “profit system was a fact, not a cause,” and we were supposed to set forth the “fact” with vividness and accuracy, letting the reader draw his own philosophic conclusions.

How it all worked out is animatedly set forth in a book brought out on the fiftieth anniversary date of the Luce adventure. Nineteen authors who had worked in the Luce vineyard were asked to contribute their reminiscences for a volume called Writing for Fortune (Fortune Magazine, Time-Life Building,Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020, 194 pp., $15.00). They carried out the assignment each on his own, with a minimum of editing. Amazingly enough there is little repetition. Sometimes the effect of writing for Fortune had radically different results—J. Kenneth Galbraith and myself had much the same exposure to the “facts” of corporate America, but we might as well have been investigating the industrial life of different planets. But Galbraith and Dwight MacDonald are the only two contributors out of nineteen whose exposure to the “corporation story” failed to mitigate the socialistic biases that were, at the start, almost universally part of the intellectual baggage of the fledgling Fortune writer of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.

More Imaginative Writing

Luce’s feeling, adequately buttressed by the examples he saw all around him in the Twenties, was that business writers lacked the imagination to do justice to their subject. But where to turn for a different type of writer? The intellectual Left hated business. Of intellectuals in general, Luce said “Everything about business which does not actually offend them bores them.”

If intellectuals didn’t promise much, maybe poets would do. Or imaginative writers, novelists not interested in ideology or party-line politics. Poets and novelists would be alive to the color and drama of what General Hugh (Old Iron Pants) Johnson called the “savage poetry” of business competition.

The early Fortune mastheads are revealing. The editors included Charles Wertenbaker, Green Pey-ton, Robert Cantwell, Edmund Gilligan and James Gould Cozzens, all novelists. Jim Agee, another editor, was a well-known poet. John Davenport, a poet in college, could spout Yeats by the yard. Louis Kronenberger, an esthete with little interest in politics, would go on from a Fortune career to be a first-rate dramatic critic. Jack Jessup came out of an advertising agency to adapt his incomparable slow ball to corporate stories that blithely ignored the advertising space salesman.

Russell Davenport’s Influence

Arch MacLeish, Pulitzer poet, was the acknowledged Konzertmeister of the early staff. Russell Davenport, the managing editor during most of the eight years I spent as a Fortune writer, had devoted hours to tinkering with terza rima, his favorite verse form. His only defect as a managing editor was his practice of rewriting big sections of stories. Since his own style was so distinctive, the presence of his interjected paragraphs played havoc with the tonal unity of an article. Charles J. V. Murphy, no mean stylist himself, resented the two-toning of his prose.

Lest the strange crew that Luce had assembled to dramatize business should fail to respect facts, the female researchers, many of whom had had actual business experience, stood ready to curb the more florid departures from prosaic reality. The system seemed to work. It not only produced good business stories, it also helped cross-fertilize the articles on the mixed economy that had become the prevailing mark of the Rooseveltian decade. Russell Davenport’s business- and-government editorials “leaked” by any strict libertarian’s standards when it came to criticizing what was going on in Washington, D.C. But, in their tentative way, they foretold that a period of questioning the role of the State in economic decisions would not be long in coming.

For myself, the experience of visiting factories, mines and board rooms left me open to the arguments of a Hayek (The Road to Serfdom), a Mises (Socialism), an Isabel Paterson (The God of the Machine), a Rose Wilder Lane (The Discovery of Freedom), when the philosophical backlash to the Keynesian and Marxian theories came in the Nineteen Forties. Fortune gave me insight into the creative experience that I would never have had if I had remained in the tight little world of the Manhattan intellectuals. []

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.