How will True/Slant be remembered?
This is my final post, so let me say quickly what a pleasure it was to write, read and discuss on True/Slant. Thanks especially to the True/Slant staff, Kashmir Hill for getting me here, ebizjoey for his tips and comments and all the great commenters on this site. Also, let me offer my sincere appreciation for the professionalism, verve and intelligence of my fellow contributors.
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On a Saturday afternoon I walked into one of the nation’s most impressive collective brains – the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the branch with the lionized front steps. I was there to understand something about death and memory, but not on the usual, personal level. When something social dies – a magazine or a website, for instance – how is it remembered? If we dig deep into the back of the collective mind, what would be there? Those questions led me to the Independent, once a venerable magazine that lived 80 years before dying in 1928. I had never heard of it before, but it was both inspiration and competition to magazines that defined an era — The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic to name a few.
It remains to be seen whether there’s a lasting memory of True/Slant, the brilliant experiment of Lewis Dvorkin, Coates Bateman, Andrea Spiegel, Michael Roston, Steve McNally, 300 contributors and tens of thousands of engaged readers. It certainly competed with, and may very well inspire, those publications that will define this era. But finding the Independent is also a reminder of how ephemeral this business is, as it is meant to be. And yet ….
Deep in the recesses of the human brain, enzymes keep old memories stored for occasional retrieval by the conscious mind, which is usually preoccupied with the present and recent past. Collective memory works the same way – older memories are pushed further and further away from the hustle of the moment.
The microforms room is deep in the recesses of the Schwarzman building, far from the grandeur of the main reading rooms and picture galleries and elegant staircases. Drop ceilings and fluorescent lighting give a greenish tint to the walls, which are neatly decorated with watermarks of logos famous publications. The microfilm you can access in the room itself cover the current New York newspapers. Everything else has to be ordered from a back room.
I found the Independent after looking through a long index of publications in the American Periodical Series, a set of microfilm created in 1941 by the University of Michigan to, “document the origins of American magazine journalism which began in 1741 with Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine and Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine.” The Independent stood out to me for its long life, it’s consistent weekly publication schedule and it’s sudden demise.
I wrote down the reel numbers and handed them to a microfilm clerk named Charles.
“It will be about 20 minutes,” he said. “Those are stored in the basement.”
Sadly, the first two years of the magazine, 1848 and 49, are not part of the series. But it’s safe to guess it didn’t grow quickly – in January 1850, the Independent is a feisty four-page broadsheet published in New York City. It’s filled with Protestant piety, strong anti-slavery convictions and a pre-occupation with Catholicism. “Religious liberty in France is again trampled under the feet of the Jesuits,” declares the unnamed writer under the title, “The State of France” in the January 3, 1850 edition.
Another article tells the cautionary tale of a boy who refuses to submit to Christ’s laws despite the fact that his salvation is not guaranteed and a boy down the street not much older had just recently died. A sermon printed in full warns the readers that disobeying the civil law is a Christian duty and a prayer is nearby asking for strength to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law: “I am liable to be called on to assist in restoring a miserable fugitive to his bondage … Blind my eyes to all the evils of his state; may I disregard his sighs, his tears and his supplications.”
By the turn of the 20th Century, the Independent is a sophisticated magazine. Gone are the preachers and prayers, replaced primarily by college professors and editorials about the state of the world. The Jan. 7, 1903 edition includes a reprint of Count Leo Tolstoy’s “Science and Money,” the first time it was published complete in English, according to an editor’s note. The international desk has also become more sophisticated, though a broad brush is still applied: “The year in South America has been no more turbulent than South American years usually are.”
In 1924 the magazine is bought by a company in Boston and moved there. It has many elements that readers of modern magazines would recognize – a strong books section, long-form pieces from writers around the world, an in-depth 1928 piece by Harry L. Foster about Haiti’s conditions since U.S. Marines took control of the “Colorful Black Republic.”
The penultimate issue notes the magazine’s demise – The Independent was being consumed by The Outlook. “The next number of The Independent, that of Oct. 13, will be the last which we shall publish …”
The last article, “How Shall we Muzzle Monopoly,” ends the book with this: “Monopoly is the great problem of civilization. It is the problem to which Lincoln referred when he said: ‘There has never been but one question in all civilization; there is but one question now; and there never will be but one question in the future, and that is: How to prevent a few men from saying to many men, you work and earn bread and we will eat.’”