From Robert Penn Warren to Honey Boo Boo: People Magazine, Then and Now

Earlier this week, I was doing some research on the writer Eleanor Clark (1913-96)–who was the wife of Robert Penn Warren (1905-89), the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet, and author of the remarkable All the King’s Men–when I came across this beautiful little article from 1977 about the couple titled, “Robert Penn Warren and Wife Eleanor Clark Battle a Writer’s Nightmare: Her Loss of Sight.” Here is an excerpt:

Their faces reveal so much. His is freckled, deeply furrowed, with more creases and seams than a Kentucky county road. Hers is harder, smoother, finely etched granite worn smooth by New England streams.

He is the only winner of Pulitzers in both fiction (for All the King’s Men in 1947) and poetry (Promises in 1958). Her Oysters of Locmariaquer in 1965 made them the only husband and wife who have separately won National Book Awards. Yet even though Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark are publishing three new books between them in this, their 25th married year, the celebration is bittersweet.

Eleanor is going blind. “One eye went bad about three years ago,” she states unflinchingly. “About a year ago the other went. I can’t read. I can’t recognize people. There was a time when I almost went crazy, nearly suicidal.” (A reviewer once described her meticulously written travel books as “above all gloriously visual.”)

But instead of yielding in self-pity to her affliction—a massive hemorrhaging considered irreversible—Clark, a flinty Connecticut Yankee of 63, has made it the subject of a tough and tartly humorous new book. Titled Eyes, Etc. . . . , it will come out this fall. She painstakingly hand-lettered her manuscript with black Magic Markers on drawing pads “as a way to keep going.”

Would it shock you to learn that this article is from People magazine–the People magazine of the 1970s? This would be the same People magazine that these days features articles on Kanye West and his baby mama Kim Kardashian’s new $11 million Bel Air mansion, Honey Boo Boo’s newest admirer, and the latest in the Lindsay Lohan saga.

People magazine’s infatuation with celebrity gossip and Hollywood culture is not surprising, of course; what’s surprising, to me at least, is how literary the magazine used to be. If you read the full article about Eleanor Clark and her husband, you’ll see that it’s not only a well-written portrait of an erudite couple, but it addresses topics that you would never find in People today. For instance:

At 2:30 they rendezvous for “a scrappy lunch.” “I always accuse him of not understanding women,” [Clark] needles, and [Warren] argues, “But I have a Southern streak that women are made of finer clay than we are.” Such gallantry draws a “Sexist! Sexist!” retort from Eleanor. Yet “women’s lib bores me,” she scoffs. “It’s a cover for women who only have themselves to blame for their lives. You don’t go blaming others for what you don’t do.” That, it seems clear, will never happen to Eleanor and Red. “In the future,” she announces firmly, “we will write more books.”

This article was not an anomaly for People back then. Apparently, in its inaugural edition, published in 1974, People ran articles about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Gloria Vanderbilt. There was a piece on the wives of Vietnam war veterans–men who were, at that point, missing-in-action. On the cover was Mia Farrow, who was starring as Daisy in that year’s The Great Gatsby opposite Robert Redford. Check out the cover

How the culture has changed!

  1. Duane Oyen

    Obama voters then and now…..

  2. Capt. Aubrey

    I wonder if there are fewer people out there willing or interested in reading about someone like Warren and his wife or if those people are just as numerous or small as they ever were but more capable now of obtaining information like that from less mass market sources. So People’s audience might be dumber but that might not be true of the entire culture…or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

  3. genferei

    So this is a “well written” gossip piece about “erudite” celebrities? Is the change really that big?

  4. Frightened American

    I’d call it a bait and switch.  And Mia Farrow was on the cover, after all.

  5. Valiuth

    Just think how much more depressing it will be in 40 years when we recall how much classier People Magazine was when it covered Lindsay Lohan and Honey Boo Boo. 

  6. KC Mulville

    I’ve seen many magazines “evolve” over the years. But they almost always evolve from the more difficult to the less difficult, from more intellectual to less intellectual, or from requiring more thought to less. They almost all take the path of least resistance. I can’t recall any magazine that deliberately went in the other direction.

    Which means that they’re revealing their true opinion of the audience. If you assume that the only way to increase sales is to appeal to more people … and then, you assume that any new subscribers are likely to be dumb … that explains why you dumb down your product.

    This is a warning for Ricochet.

  7. Ross C

    Books were a more important part of the popular culture then.  How couldn’t they be. 

    A recent post reminded me of the line in the 1979 Pink Floyd song “Nobody Home” that goes like this “…I’ve got thirteen channels of [expletive] on the TV to choose from…”  This album, The Wall was released in 1979 (two years after your article) and I think 13 channels was supposed to be a lot although it seems like pitiful few today.

    So maybe the refocus from authors to more visual mediums is natural for our times.

    However, my speculation is that People’s (and our) fascination with largely unremarkable celebrities like Kardashian or Lohan is more along the lines of a very soft sort of pornography, degradations and all.  Hollywood has always (IMHO) had this element and I think it is largely the reason that female parts are largely restricted to younger women.  (e.g. Bogart was 45 and Bacall was 20 in “To Have and Have Not”.)

  8. Ansonia

    I think average people are less literate than they used to be.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Fascinating. I knew Warren slightly, and I know his daughter, who is a fine poet. This is a nice illustration of the coarsening of America.

  10. Franco

    I remember when People published its first issue. It grew out of a popular section of TIME magazine. It was already comparatively gossipy and lightweight then and it just devolved into what it is now, just like everything else. I hate to keep referring to this, but the movie Idiocracy comes to mind.

    I’m amazed at the insanity. 

  11. dogsbody

    If you wish to be very depressed at the state of our culture,  watch some clips from the old Tonight Show with Steve Allen or Jack Paar;  then watch the modern version with Jay Leno, or worse yet, Jon Stewart’s show. 

  12. Call2Doody

    When a writing student at Yale told Robert Penn Warren that a D.H. Lawrence story needed some tweaks to its plot, he told the student, Brandon Tartikoff, “You should probably think of a career in television.”

    As program chief at NBC, Tartikoff brought an upper-middle-brow baby boomer sensibility to the mass medium, approving hits like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, CheersL.A. Law, Golden Girls, and The Cosby Show. Another Warren student, David Milch, helped elevate television writing to a noteworthy artistic echelon with his work on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood.

    If the cultural barometer People magazine now takes a vulgar, low brow reading on the centerpoint of the mass audience, one reason is because the current generation didn’t have Robert Penn Warren influencing their work.