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!