Academic journal article Journalism History

The Tale of Advancement: Life Magazine's Construction of the Modern American Success Story

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Tale of Advancement: Life Magazine's Construction of the Modern American Success Story

Article excerpt

In the 1930s and the 1940s, Life's visual narratives conveyed the norms and standards of the new, modern culture and strove to create a community of citizens who, with the proper training and knowledge, could thrive in this new society. The person best suited to lead the way in this new culture was the self-made professional, who as the creator of the norms of modern society, also became their embodiment. biographical sketches of professionals appeared frequently in Life as "Tales of Advancement," which constructed the myth of American success. Unlike the Horatio Alger stories, these tales told of men and women who succeeded through natural talent, hard work, and application. This study analyzed these success narratives through archival research, examination of primary texts, and content analysis, and places them within the culture at large.

Overwhelmingly popular during its long run from 1936 to 1972, the success stories presented in Life magazine continue to resonate in American culture.1 The visual narratives in Life conveyed the norms and standards of modern culture based on technology, scientific advancement, professional expertise, and consumption.

While previous studies have examined Life's role in American culture in the 1950s,2 this article proposes that the view of American life that reached fruition in the 1950s was laid down in the first years of the publication. This is based on an examination of the role of Life in defining a new lifestyle in the 1930s and early 1940s.3 This is the period in which photographic magazines, along with other new media forms-radio, newsreels, and even television-were both developing themselves and conveying the norms and standards of modernity. Life premiered in 1936, a time when, according to historian Terry Smith, the "nature, scope, beliefs, and behaviors" of its ideal reader, the middle-class, were in "dynamic formation."4 In the midst of the Depression and the build-up to war, the editors of LJfe were constructing, just as were their readers, the path to the future. They did this by presenting a model of society that nurtured and valorized the new professional class, which was the group best suited to lead the way. By the 1950s, this ideology had become dominant, as the procedures outlined in the 1930s were the commonly accepted frame for advancement. By the end of the 1950s, college attendance had risen dramatically, and a college degree was viewed as the key to professional status, which in turn was seen as embodying an American ethos: advancement built on merit and hard work, not birth.

The 1920s and the 1930s are the decades in which the modern consumer society was consolidated and then assumed its central place. A new social class, those who worked for a salary rather than wages, was directly tied to the new culture. The new ideology that this group articulated was one of abundance, not scarcity, personality, or character.5 To educate citizens in the quest to fit into this new life, the professional class-social scientists, sociologists, doctors, and educators-and government bureaucrats became important "purveyors of advice."6 The growing role and prestige of professionals to interpret modern life is critical to how the impact of Life is viewed during this period. The 1930s is the decade of the development of the "therapeutic society:"7 personal health, self-absorption, domestic patterns, interpersonal relations-all became social sciences in which the professional held the key. Life presented the professional as one who, based on hard work and training, deserved to lead. Along with advertising, professionals became the guides to the new society.

Maren Stange described an historic backdrop to the increasing role of experts. She noted that the "experience during the First World War of successful cooperation among business, the academy, and the military, had greatly reinforced the pre-war tendencies toward nationally centralized, high-level decision making. …

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