In her splendidly written and meticulously researched book Literate Zeal: Gender and the Making of a New Yorker Ethos, University of Kentucky English Professor Janet Carey Eldred reveals how 20th-century female editors became “missionaries in social and literary causes” during their tenure at magazines such as The New Yorker, Ladies’ Home Journal and Mademoiselle. They created in the process what Eldred terms haute literacy, that is, “literature with high cultural aspirations, marketed to a large reading public seeking intellectual affirmation.”
Of particular interest to Eldred is Katherine S. White, who was one of the most powerful female editors of the 20th century. White spent more than 30 years shaping The New Yorker into a magazine that edified and regaled its urbane audience without being too discursive, too ambiguous, too literary or too political. Moreover, White’s letters to authors went beyond addressing grammar issues and making suggestions for fundamental revisions. Instead, she made specific recommendations to authors that allowed her to contour the context and focus of their work, creating a literary ethos that not only influenced other popular magazines of her era, but also continues to influence and guide magazine publishing in this century. White mandated that authors revise their manuscripts to “fit” the vibe of The New Yorker, which was home to a particular type of literature, one “that was styled, advertised, and consumed.”
Many writers who went on to become preeminent American authors—William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kentucky’s own Robert Penn Warren—underwent the scrutiny of these fearless female editors who restyled the literature submitted to them for publication. The result was that literature featured in these magazines was elevated to the realm of high fashion and high culture.
Betsy Talbot Blackwell, who edited Mademoiselle for several decades beginning in 1937, increased circulation by sculpting her magazine’s content to appeal to “college and young career women” who wanted “quality reading material.” Eldred notes how the rise in female editors came about during two crucial moments in American literary history—one being that more women were going to college and studying literature, and the second that America was just beginning its love affair with literacy.
Literate Zeal is a fascinating and critical account of the era when magazines were in their heyday because reading was the primary source of entertainment, and when gender roles in publication were starting to shift beyond the antiquated boundaries that had traditionally excluded women from the business of publishing.
— Journey McAndrews