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The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time

By posted at 6:10 am on August 16, 2010 17

Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)

Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time‘s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.

In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce

had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.

This same impulse seems to be at work in Time‘s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”

Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time‘s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time‘s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”

In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time‘s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:

Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.

And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)

By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Catherlooks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time‘s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time‘s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.

The other thing to say about Time‘s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)

Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time‘s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross‘s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time‘s). Read them to marvel at Time‘s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.

Methods

Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.

Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time‘s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.

The List

1920-1929

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Joseph Conrad. “A Great Novelist to Visit the United States.” April 7, 1923. Cover image.

Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.

George Bernard Shaw / Saint Joan. “Saint Joan.” December 24, 1923. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / All God’s Chillun Got Wings. “All God’s Chillun.” March 17, 1924. Cover image.

Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.

Booth Tarkington / Women. “Mr. Tarkington’s Ladies.” December 21, 1925. Cover image.

H. G. Wells / The World of William Clissold. “Wells, Wells, Wells.” September 20, 1926. Cover image.

Rudyard Kipling / Debits and Credits. “Loud Kipling.” September 27, 1926. Cover image.

Sinclair Lewis / Elmer Gantry. “Bible Boar.” March 14, 1927. Cover image.

Michael Arlen / Young Men in Love. “Mayfairian.” May 2, 1927. Cover image.

E. Phillips Oppenheim / Miss Brown of X. Y. O.. “Number 100.” September 12, 1927. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / Strange Interlude. “New Plays in Manhattan.” February 13, 1928. Cover image.

Edgar Wallace / People. “Master of Mass.” April 15, 1929. Cover image.

Robert Bridges / The Testament of Beauty. “Laureate Testifies.” December 2, 1929. Cover image.

1930-1939

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Willa Cather / Shadows on the Rock. “Amen, Sinner.” August 3, 1931. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / Mourning Becomes Electra. “Greece in New England.” November 2, 1931. Cover image.

Philip Barry / The Animal Kingdom. “Angel Like Lindbergh.” January 25, 1932. Cover image.

Robinson Jeffers / Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems. “Harrowed Marrow.” April 4, 1932. Cover image.

T. E. Lawrence / The Odyssey [trans.]. “Scholar-Warrior.” November 28, 1932. Cover image.

Noel Coward / Design for Living. “First Englishman.” January 30, 1933. Cover image.

Gertrude Stein / The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. “Stem’s Way.” September 11, 1933. Cover image.

James Joyce / Ulysses. “Ulysses Lands.” January 29, 1934. Cover image.

Thomas Mann / Joseph and his Brothers. “Great Mann.” June 11, 1934. Cover image.

Upton Sinclair. “California Climax.” October 24, 1934. Cover image.

Maxwell Anderson / Valley Forge. “Washington, by Anderson.” December 10, 1934. Cover image.

Kathleen Norris / Woman in Love. “Golden Honeymoon.” January 28, 1935. Cover image.

John Buchan. “Canada’s New Governor General.” October 21, 1935. Cover image.

George Santayana / The Last Puritan. “Philosophic Footballer.” February 3, 1936. Cover image.

John Dos Passos / U.S.A. trilogy. “Private Historian.” August 10, 1936. Cover image.

Virginia Woolf / The Years. “How Time Passes.” April 12, 1937. Cover image.

Sidney Howard. “Meat Show Meeting.” June 7, 1937. Cover image.

Ernest Hemingway / To Have and To Have Not. “All Stones End . . . .” October 18, 1937. Cover image.

Holger Cahill. “In the Business District.” September 5, 1938. Cover image.

Andre Malraux / Man’s Hope. “News From Spain.” November 7, 1938. Cover image.

William Faulkner / The Wild Palms. “When the Dam Breaks.” January 23, 1939. Cover image.

James Joyce / Finnegans Wake. “Night Thoughts.” May 8, 1939. Cover image.

Carl Sandburg / Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. “Your Obt. Servt.” December 4, 1939. Cover image.

1940-1949

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Kenneth Roberts / Oliver Wiswell. “Angry Man’s Romance.” November 25, 1940. Cover image.

Sinclair Lewis / Cass Timberlane. “Laureate of the Booboisie.” October 8, 1945. Cover image.

Craig Rice. “Mulled Murder, with Spice.” January 28, 1946. Cover image.

Eugene O’Neill / The Iceman Cometh. “The Ordeal of Eugene O’Neill.” October 21, 1946. Cover image.

C. S. Lewis / The Screwtape Letters. “Don v. Devil.” September 8, 1947. Cover image.

Rebecca West / The Meaning of Treason. “Circles of Perdition.” December 8, 1947. Cover image.

John P. Marquand / Point of No Return. “Spruce Street Boy.” March 7, 1949. Cover image.

1950-1959

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T. S. Eliot / The Cocktail Party. “Mr. Eliot.” March 6, 1950. Cover image.

Robert Frost. “Pawky Poet.” October 9, 1950. Cover image.

James Thurber. “Priceless Gift of Laughter.” July 9, 1951. Cover image.

Graham Greene / The End of the Affair. “Shocker.” October 29, 1951. Cover image.

Joyce Carey / Prisoner of Grace. “Cheerful Protestant.” October 20, 1952. Cover image.

Thorton Wilder. “An Obliging Man.” January 12, 1953. Cover image.

Ernest Hemingway. “An American Storyteller.” December 13, 1954. Cover image.

Andre Malraux. “Man’s Quest.” July 18, 1955. Cover image.

Herman Wouk / Marjorie Morningstar. “The Wouk Mutiny.” September 5, 1955. Cover image.

James Gould Cozzens / By Love Possessed. “The Hermit of Lambertville.” September 2, 1957. Cover image.

Boris Pasternak / Doctor Zhivago. “The Passion of Yurii Zhivago.” December 15, 1958. Cover image.

1960-1969

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J. D. Salinger / Franny and Zooey. “Sonny.” September 15, 1961. Cover image.

Tennessee Williams / The Night of the Iguana. “The Angel of the Odd.” March 9, 1962. Cover image.

Evgeny Evtushenko. “A Longing for Truth.” April 13, 1962. Cover image.

James Baldwin / The Fire Next Time. “The Root of the Negro Problem.” May 7, 1963. Cover image.

John Cheever / The Wapshot Scandal. “Ovid in Ossining.” March 27, 1964. Cover image.

Phyllis McGinley. “The Telltale Heart.” June 18, 1965. Cover image.

Robert Lowell. “The Second Chance.” June 2, 1967. Cover image.

John Updike / Couples. “View from the Catacombs.” April 26, 1968. Cover image.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn / In The First Circle. “The Writer as Russia’s Conscience
Headline
.” September 27, 1968. Cover image.

Vladimir Nabokov / Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. “Prospero’s Progress.” May 23, 1969. Cover image.

1970-1979

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Gunter Grass / Local Anaesthetic. “The Dentist’s Chair as an Allegory in Life.” April 13, 1970. Cover image.

Richard Bach / Jonathan Livingston Seagull. “It’s a Bird! It’s a Dream! It’s Supergull!” November 13, 1972. Cover image.

Norman Mailer / Marilyn. “Two Myths Converge: NM Discovers MM.” July 16, 1973. Cover image.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn / The Gulag Archipelago. “An Artist Becomes an Exile.” February 25, 1974. Cover image.

Gore Vidal / 1876. “Laughing Cassandra.” March 1, 1976. Cover image.

Alex Haley / Roots. “Why ‘Roots’ Hit Home.” February 14, 1977. Cover image.

John Le Carre / The Honourable Schoolboy. “The Spy Who Came in for the Gold.” October 3, 1977. Cover image.

Mario Puzo / Fools Die. “Paperback Godfather.” August 28, 1978. Cover image.

1980-1989

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John Irving / The Hotel New Hampshire. “Life Into Art.” August 31, 1981. Cover image.

John Updike / Bech is Back. “Perennial Promises Kept.” October 18, 1982. Cover image.

Garrison Keillor / Lake Wobegon Days. “Lonesome Whistle Blowing.” November 4, 1985. Cover image.

Stephen King / It. “King of Horror.” October 6, 1986. Cover image.

1990-1999

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Scott Turow / Burden of Proof. “Burden of Success.” June 11, 1990. Cover image.

Michael Crichton / The Lost World. “Meet Mr. Wizard.” September 25, 1995. Cover image.

Toni Morrison / Paradise. “Paradise Found.” January 19, 1998. Cover image.

Tom Wolfe / A Man in Full. “Tom Wolfe Writes Again.” November 2, 1998. Cover image.

2000-2009

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Stephen King / “Riding the Bullet.” “Everyone’s A Star.com.” March 27, 2000. Cover image.

2010

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Jonathan Franzen / Freedom. “Great American Novelist.” August 23, 2010. Cover image.





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17 Responses to “The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time”

  1. Time’s literary coverboys and -girls « Craig Fehrman
    at 7:57 am on August 16, 2010

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  2. Edward Williams
    at 2:08 pm on August 16, 2010

    You left out Christopher Fry, on the Time cover of Nov 20, 1950

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  4. Craig Fehrman
    at 3:15 pm on August 16, 2010

    Hi Edward,

    Thanks for mentioning Fry. I saw that cover on my first pass through the archives, but decided to skip it as I skipped Time’s other Broadway-slash-musical covers (of which there were a surprising number). Had to draw the line somewhere, which also meant no journalists or historians.

    That said, I looked again after your comment, and it seems I may have misunderestimated this one. So here’s Fry’s cover and his cover story. And thanks for reading!

    http://img.timeinc.net/time/magazine/archive/covers/1950/1101501120_400.jpg

    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,813801,00.html

  5. Edward Williams
    at 10:34 pm on August 16, 2010

    Thanks Craig for retrieving the Fry cover and story. I hadn’t read the story on him, only noticed a Time cover somewhere and downloaded it. Christopher Fry is one of my favorite writers, and I have all his plays. To me he is a far greater poet than Eliot, a more enduring poetical spirit. I keep watching for some theater company to launch a revival; say of “A Phoenix Too Frequent”, or “Venus Observed”.

  6. sunnyc
    at 4:09 am on August 17, 2010

    The links to the articles about Turow and Crichton appears to be the same link. All leads back to Turow.

  7. Jeffrey Marks
    at 5:40 am on August 17, 2010

    Glad to see Craig Rice included there. Her inteview with time was fraught with issues, mainly because she lied to the interviewers on several occasions. I was able to read the notes and correspondence for my biography of Rice, Who Was That Lady? Needless to say, Time was not pleased.

  8. C. Max Magee
    at 6:32 am on August 17, 2010

    Thanks Sunny, that link is fixed.

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    Yes, it’s easy to portray writers as flat characters, because they’re not: they’re incapable of being captured (interior) characters.

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