Literature, Popular Culture, and Society

By Leo Lowenthal | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Triumph of Mass Idols

The following study is concerned with the content analysis of biographies. This literary topic had inundated the book market for the three decades previous to the writing of this article in 1943, and had for some time been a regular feature of popular magazines. Surprisingly enough, not very much attention had been paid to this phenomenon, none whatever to biographies appearing in magazines, and little to those published in book form.1

It started before the first World War, but the main onrush came shortly afterwards. The popular biography was one of the most conspicuous newcomers in the realm of print since the introduction of the short story. The circulation of books by Emil Ludwig,2 André Maurois, Lytton Strachey, and Stefan Zweig, reached a figure in the millions, and with each new publication, the number of languages into which they were translated grew. Even if it were only a passing literary fad, one would still have to explain why this

The first published version of this chapter appeared as "Biographies in Popular Magazines" in Radio Research: 1942-1943, edited by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton ( New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944). Copyright by Paul F. Lazarsfeldand Frank Stanton, reprinted by permission of Professor Lazarsfeld.

____________________
1
Cf. Edward H. O'Neill, A History of American Biography ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935). His remarks on pp. 179ff. on the period since 1919 as the "most prolific one in American history for biographical writing," are quoted by Helen McGill Hughes , News and the Human Interest Story ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), p. 285f, copyright 1940 by the University of Chicago. The book by William S. Gray and Ruth Munroe, The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults ( New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), which analyzes readers' figures for books and magazines, does not even introduce the category of biographies in its tables on the contents of magazines, and applies it only once for books in a sample analysis of readers in Hyde Park, Chicago. The only comment the authors have to offer is: "There is some tendency to prefer biographies and poetry, especially in moderate doses to other types of reading except fiction" (p. 154). Finally, I want to quote as a witness in this case of scientific negligence, Donald A. Stouffer, The Art of Biography in Eighteenth Century England ( Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), who in his excellent and very thorough study says: "Biography as a branch of literature has been too long neglected" (p. 3).
2
Up to the spring of 1939, 3.1 million copies of his books were sold: 1.2 million in Germany, 1.1 million in the U.S., 0.8 million elsewhere. Cf. Emil Ludwig, Traduction des oeuvres ( Moscia, 1939), p. 2.

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