To say that magazines were subject-making tools is not entirely complete or accurate. In fact, magazines in the early par of the twentieth century were powerful apparatuses not just for making subjects but for organizing them - and most magazines saw this as their primary purpose. The point was not just to make certain kinds of selfhood possible, but to organize an audience of readers into a consumer group.
In Selling Culture, Richard Ohmann argues that it was this organizing practice that marked the birth of mass culture [note]. Before the 1890s, magazine publishers made money selling magazines. Few of them were specialized enough to claim a readership that was also a predictable consumer group. Advertising was a supplemental part of the business and served to bring in extra cash - it was never, either rhetorically or economically, the main event. What changed in the 1890s was that magazine publishers discovered that they could make more money selling their readers than selling to their readers. In 1907 one of a new breed of "ad men" described the new economy of attention:
The challenge of magazine making thus became the challenge of generating a group of people who - if they read together - were reasonably certain to buy together. The successful magazines of the era were those that could put the advertisement of their client directly into the hands of the most likely buyers.
As a methodological assumption for reading Vanity Fair, this is important for two reasons. The first is that we can make no strict distinction between advertisements and editorial matter. Jackson Lears notes that, as the magazines became more and more about generating a readership that was coextensive with a given consumer group, "the editorial matter and even the fiction in many of the magazines came to resemble advertising copy" ("Ad Man," 114). In reading an issue of Vanity Fair - or any other magazine from the era - the reader needs to understand the position that the ad men took: the magazine was in many ways nothing but advertisement - every page of it was ultimately about telling people how to spend their money.
What is easy to over look here is that the performative force of any text could never be purely economic. The advertisement was about subjecting people to suggestion - but it is only in such instances of subjugation that subjectivity is possible. In other words - the work of the magazine in the early part of the twentieth century was far more complex than just telling people what to buy. Simply in telling them what to buy the text opened up certain possibilities of the self because it positioned its readers in relation to other things. At the most literal level, other things here means the commodities the magazine was advertising. But in teaching people the "right" kind of relation to the world of commodities, "national advertising, more systematically and pervasively than any other institution… produced the dominant ideals of human subjectivity under advanced capitalism" ("Ad Man" 110). It was through ads, and through magazines especially, that literate Americans in the 1920s and 1930s learned how to relate to themselves and their world.
Of course, the specific terms of the subjectivities and relations offered differed, of course, by magazine, but some generalizations are possible. Lears argues that national advertisers, by arrogating the prestige of production, bringing publicity to areas of intimacy, and projecting their own world view into a mass-produced commercial rhetoric and iconography, participated in the construction of what might be called the managed subject - a normative self that suited the emerging corporate structure of power relations in the early twentieth century United States ("Ad Man" 110).
The over arching project was about producing an American who felt that in order to live up to an externally imposed standard (of hygiene, sophistication, or masculinity, for example), deliberate steps had to be taken, and part of the stepping would be about consuming products such as Listerine or General Electric Refrigerators.
So, the modern magazine was in the business of selling reader's attention to corporations, and in entering that business it became itself one vast advertisement - editorial matter and all. While this narrative provides a useful framework for the story of Vanity Fair, it is probably more applicable to magazines that were national commercial successes, such as McCall's of The Saturday Evening Post, both of which were selling about thirty times as many magazines per month as was Vanity Fair [note]. Vanity Fair's existence could not have been purely about selling readers' attention for profit simply because it failed to do so. In its twenty-four years in business the magazine turned a profit only once (Hoffman 48), and yet publisher Conde Nast proudly took money from more lucrative publications such as Vogue in order to keep Vanity Fair afloat.
There is evidence, too, the magazine was not too concerned with its own financial well being. As nearly as any evidence can suggest [note], the editors and writers of Vanity Fair were genuinely uninterested in the commercial part of producing a magazine. There was little or no communication between the business and editorial offices (Hoffman 50) and the business executives' names did not even appear in the magazine for most of the years they made possible its publication (Hoffman 51).
It is possible, if unlikely, that this was clever posturing on the part of the editorial staff. Advertising and business were understood as "the Lower part" (Hoffman 45) of a magazine concerned with aesthetic matters, and it might have been part of a carefully managed public image that Vanity Fair presented itself as too concerned with the tasteful to worry about the pedestrian dollars and cents of magazine publishing. This would be believable if it weren't for the fact that Vanity Fair really was loosing money. If publisher Conde Nast and editor Frank Crowninshield had been concerned with making a profit they would have likely abandoned the project when it failed to do so.
It would be inaccurate to assume that the magazine put up a unified disavowal of its own advertising department. The advertisements in the magazine were featured prominently; in the long issues of the late twenties, advertisements often took up the first fifty pages until "In Vanity Fair" [note] appeared on page 55 or so. There were also explicit pleas to the reader to pay attention to these ads - suggesting that the very separation between editorial and advertising policy came from some over-arching plan the two shared. In the November 1913 "In Vanity Fair" Frank Crowninshield insisted that
Even at the best of times Vanity Fair failed to bring in money and professed profound lack of interest in its own commercial success, but it had little in common with the so called little magazines with which it shared its lack of marketability; it was not a journal of the best that had been thought and said, devoted (whatever the economic cost) to upholding aesthetic standards set long before. It was profoundly interested in film and the new popular arts of its day, and more importantly - if more subtlety - it had a characteristic love of spectacle and absurdity. Here we encounter one of the paradoxes that at once propelled and plagued the magazine - its unorthodox, "kaleidoscopic" [note] concern with all matters aesthetic, from the "highest" and most challenging to the most accessible, entertaining, and "cheep." While these contradiction began to make the magazine impossible in the depression, through most of its history Vanity Fair greeted its public with a Whitmanesque nonchalance of self-contradiction.
Such was the case, too, with the magazine's relation to history itself. Vanity Fair was emphatically and unequivocally modern in all its concerns - at least that's what most of the pages said. The others were sometimes reticent, sometimes nostalgic, and sometimes out and out hostile to the new. In 1929 the word "modern" seemed to appear in ever article and every advertisement. Towels, bathrooms, furniture [note] and fashions were all advertised as modern, and articles promised to depict "The Private Lives of the Moderns" (August, 1929), or "This Modern Living" (September, 1929). Alfred H. Barr debated the importance of "An American Museum of Modern Art" in New York (November, 1929). It had been Crowninshield's editorial policy to promote modernism since he took over the magazine, but Conde Nast was less enthusiastic. Helen Lawrenson, one of the few Vanity Fair staff members to have written about her experiences at the magazine, recalled that
This aesthetic dissonance at the top of the chain of command found reflection in the magazine itself. In 1929 Deems Taylor was one staff writer who was profoundly skeptical about the value of "the so-called 'modern' styles" in aesthetic culture [note]. He published a few articles criticizing modern architecture, at one point going so far as to claim that, if architecture could produce such abominations as the modern skyscraper, it could not be rightly considered an aesthetic practice ("It's Terrible, but is it Art?" January, 1929).
It is hard not to see how this particular incoherence was built into the magazine from the beginning. Theorists of modernity from Eliot to Benjamin have often insisted that seemingly awkward and fragmentary quotations from the past are the defining characteristic of the modern world. In a 1914 "In Vanity Fair," the magazine declared that
Cleveland Amory argues that the cultural work of Vanity Fair was ultimately about theorizing for its readers the relationship between the old Victorian world and the new modern-industrial one [note]. The title of the magazine was borrowed, of course, from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, but it borrowed also from at least three, and perhaps more, magazines that had been called "Vanity Fair" in the nineteenth century. In 1914 the title could very well have signified to readers - who had lived most of their lives in the nineteenth century - the kind of magazine they remembered from their childhood in the days before full scale industrialism had come to America. Vanity Fair's insistence on the self evident importance of taste and beauty also resonated with an Arnoldian world view. While the magazine's superstructure was distinctly nineteenth century, it was deeply concerned with modern life and modernist aesthetics - thus suggesting on every page the capacity of the old world to contain the new. Vanity Fair's governing spatial metaphor was therefor of an old world big enough to house the new.
While this may seem unimportant on the surface, it was actually a strange and unpopular position in the history of American thought. The converse - that the new world would consume the old - had considerably more support in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" Eliot remarks
Emerson had made a similar claim almost a hundred years before in "Circles,"
For both writers - one a twentieth century theorist of the city, the other a nineteenth century philosopher of nature - the passing of time works by the present's circumscription of the past. In this context Vanity Fair seems to have taken up a much more radical position than is often suspected by those who see only its veneer of conservative nostalgia. Amid a going ideology that the present would inevitably consume and digest the values of the past, Vanity Fair insisted that late Victorian aesthetic and social values were fully able to contain and engage with the new discourses of cubism, machine technology, motion pictures, and politically enfranchised womanhood. Vanity Fair boldly insisted that it was the old that could hold the new, and not the other way around.
Part of that old world was the leisure class values of old New York - what Amory calls "the stately white-tie-and-tailed elegance of a fast by-going Edwardian era" (7). Crowninshield defined his personal relation to those values with a kind of metonymy:
Indeed readers of Vanity Fair today often complain that the word "snob" comes more than a little to mind. The magazine's elitism was never a secret - but it was certainly a more complex trick to manage than any simple snobbism. Part of what the magazine sold - when it sold to its readers and not to its advertisers - was membership in what it relentlessly presented as an elite group of cultural sophisticates. But when we ask who these "sophisticates" were, we find the answers to be vague at best.
Some clues may be found in the magazine itself. From the August 1919 "In Vanity Fair:"
In the years we're examining closely - 1929 and 1933 - this air of unashamed snobbery was fully present. A subscription ad from 1929 described a character it called Mr. Tyler who, the ad explains wears a top hat (an illustration at the top of the page shows Mr. Tyler wearing his top hat and having his overcoat put on by a servant). He does this for a variety of reasons - among them that it "makes him feel a bit superior" and "raises his head above the crowd." The reader is then invited to share in Mr. Tyler's sense of superiority by subscribing to Vanity Fair which will keep you "arm in arm with things worth knowing" and allow you to "keep your head above the crowd."
Importantly the ad presents Mr. Tyler not as a node of identification, but as one of envy. The ad does not tell us that Mr. Tyler subscribes to Vanity Fair - he doesn't need to, presumably because he has a top hat - but the reader does not have a top hat, which here stands as a metonymy for his tuxedo, servant, and wealth. The address structure here is complicated precisely because it doesn't match up neatly with the professed elitism we've seen elsewhere in the magazine. Here Vanity Fair is not a signifier of sophistication but a gateway to sophistication - a monthly conduct book for, among others, the rising nouveau riche who had money and now wanted some way to affect what they understood as "true" class [note].
It is important not to reduce Vanity Fair to a conduct book for the nouveau riche, even if we read it as doing that work. Such a conduct book would have had no use for much of what we find in Vanity Fair, as we see in What Is Best Society?, a 1923 promotional pamphlet for The Book of Good Manners. The pamphlet promises that the book, which cost $3.00 (a full dollar less than a year of Vanity Fair), would answer such questions as "who should follow the usher at a theater, man or woman?" and "is it correct to eat asparagus with the fingers?"
Vanity Fair was concerned with far more than the simple dos and don'ts of leisure class etiquette. Had it been interested only in teaching people how to act as if they had been brought up leisure class it would have had as little use for its magnificent rage of concerns as did What Is Best Society?. That work could have been accomplished with the blunt pragmatism of the Book of Good Manners. This comparison reveals Vanity Fairs legitimate subtlety and a truly complex address structure for what it was, one that could signify to both old money readers and new money readers differently and yet meaningfully speak to both at the expense of neither. Its advertisements played to many of the same fears as the What Is Best Society? pamphlet. Readers' fear of being thought of as unrefined or worse, being found out as a pretender in a society of genuine sophisticates, were invoked often. But to those who already understood themselves as the social elite would have seemed funny and a gentle satire of their own values [note].
Significantly, though, Vanity Fair did not play only to these fears in order to convince potential subscribers - there were many others, and often they tied the desire to subscribe to Vanity Fair directly to the magazines dual position vis-à-vis modern art. Twice [note] in 1929 Vanity Fair promised to render modern painting intelligible to the thoroughly baffled members high society, many of whom (publisher Conde Nast among them) clung tightly to the aesthetic values of the late Victorian era. For scholars of modernism and its popular reception in America these are among the most fascinating pieces ever to appear in any magazine. In the September issue the subscription ad featured a reproduction of a Picasso with the caption
This catalog of Vanity Fair's governing dichotomies could go on forever. What should be clear by now is that Vanity Fair was no simple commercial venture - though a commercial venture is one of the things it very well might have been. The key polarities - high and mass culture, commercial and aesthetic investments, elite and popular appeal, the old, Arnoldian world of good taste and the new world of modern art (and anti-art) - all of these were important conflicting systems of meaning in the pages of this publication - and equally important conflicts in much of American culture at large. While all magazines needed to do the work of positioning their readers in relation to the products they advertised, Vanity Fair was also doing a great deal to position its readers in relation to all of these binary logics as well. The readers of Vanity Fair were invited to enact all different kinds of relationships to the conflicts in their culture. In many ways it was Vanity Fair's kaleidoscopic view of modern life appealed to many of its readers in the 1920s - readers who were perhaps weary of the vulgar one dementionality of publications like the Book of Good Manners.
Kitty Hoffman argues that, while this unstable multi-dimensionality is one of the forces that led the magazine to its collapse in 1936, it is also what makes it even now a unique publication in the history of magazines [note]. Its dizzying scope is an important forerunner to modern cultural studies, as well. Years before Walter Benjamin published "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Vanity Fair was noting with considerably less gloom the liberatory potentials of a notion of modernism that could encompass Pound and Eliot as well as Keaton and Chaplain. Hoffman notes, rightly, that that promises of this kaleidoscopic modernism go unfulfilled even now (344). Even more shockingly is the passing over of Vanity Fair in an academic climate where the popular arts are being studied with an enthusiasm as emphatic as it is overdue. The story of modernism that Vanity Fair told implicitly has yet to be explicated, and its trasformative possibilities for academic notions of the modern have yet to be explored. It is not just that Vanity Fair is an important and exceedingly interesting text for modern cultural studies, but that it played an important part in inventing modern cultural studies.