More people are literate in America than in any other country; we have several times as many college graduates as we had at the beginning of this century; and yet probably there is less serious reading, per head of population, than in any other great nation. Every age has its own means for informing, amusing, and governing, so that we would be naive to expect the printed word and the journal of opinion to exert today precisely the same influence they enjoyed at the height of their influence, during the nineteenth century. In one era, the public meeting is the chief instrument for joining men’s minds; in another, the sermon; in yet another, the country house circle; in ours, perhaps, the daily newspaper, radio, television and motion pictures.
For all that, modern society cannot endure—and its survival is immediately in question—without discussion among thinking men. The agencies of mass-communication are almost wholly imitative, looking, however vaguely, toward some loftier source for the ideas which they popularize; it simply will not do to leave the making of considered judgments, moral and social and imaginative, to radio commentators and motion-picture producers and public-relations directors and newspaper editors, even though some men of intellectual power are to be found among them. Henry Adams remarked that the North American Review, under his editorship, exercised merely a trifling direct influence; but its indirect influence, because it was read by editorial-writers and men of influence throughout the country, was profound. The best medium for expressing considered judgments still is the serious journal. And by serious review we do not mean a dull and humorless journal, but rather a magazine which endeavors to reach and to reflect the minds of men who think of something more than the appetites of the hour.
For more than two decades, the United States has suffered from a marked decline of the reflective review. During the depression years, the majority of the old magazines of thought and opinion gave up the ghost, or else experienced a metamorphosis which affected their ends. The Century, The Bookman, Scribner’s, The Living Age, The North American Review, The Review of Reviews, and most of the others simply ceased to be: and although the two most influential monthly magazines—The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s—contrived to save themselves, it was at the price of a progressive popularization, until they now serve an audience very different from that they originally sought.
The coming of new diversions—the automobile, the radio, the motion picture—had a part in this process; certain profound alterations in American education, at every level, constituting almost a repudiation of the old literary culture, were equally influential. Yet the immediate cause of the ruin of the established journals was the Great Depression, when half their old subscribers began to pare their budgets radically. In consequence, America at present has not a single monthly magazine of a reflective character. In this, our nation is poorer even than many of the smaller European states. In England, despite a similar process of attrition in the realm of serious journalism, several monthly reviews survive: The Twentieth Century, The National Review, The Month, Encounter, The Contemporary Review, History Today—not to mention the old quarterlies, or the monthlies turned quarterlies, like The Quarterly Review, The Dublin Review, The Cornhill, and The Adolphi. If Britain, with one-third the population of the United States, can contrive to read all these, we are inclined to think that America can afford the luxury of one serious monthly journal.
Despite the decay of our old monthlies, we do not dwell in a desert of the intellect. Several good quarterly journals survive among us; yet they have not succeeded in reaching the audience which the old monthlies influenced, for the most energetic of the quarterlies, has a circulation of only some seven thousand copies. The editors, professional people, college graduates, and general readers who used to subscribe to the monthly reviews somehow do not take to the quarterly form; perhaps they think, rightly or wrongly, that the quarterlies are too specialized for them, being written by professors for professors. Now the aim of The Conservative Review is to fill this need for communicating thought and opinion to the very large educated class which deserves something better than the popular press, and yet which does not seem to be much influenced by the quarterly journals of criticism and current affairs. We do not have so low an opinion of American minds and hearts as to believe that only six or seven thousand people in the nation think, or need to think, the rest being sufficiently cared for by the ephemeral press. If the present gulf between serious and popular reading widens, this nation will be confronted with the disagreeable reality of a cultural elite, perhaps divorced from influence or hostile toward the mass of men, cut off from the bulk of the nation, which wanders leaderless in the realm of ideas—or which, more probably, follows blindly any charlatan or demagogue. We have two principal purposes, then: to stimulate private taste and judgment, and to give some degree of coherence to our society.
The audience we hope to reach consists, substantially, of those persons who form opinion in their own little circles—the obscure men of mind and conscience who, as Walter Bagehot says, knit together the fabric of culture and political existence by the respect in which their friends and associates hold them. We hope to reach the present audience of the quarterlies, and we hope to reach many of the readers of the more popular monthlies; we shall seek to interest those professional people, businessmen, journalists, and general readers whose opinions at present are formed, for the most part, by the news-magazines and newspapers. We do not expect our subscription list ever to exceed fifty thousand, and we can do our work with fewer than that. We have, after all, no direct competition. We shall not seek to usurp the valuable functions of the quarterlies, or the more popular monthlies, or the weeklies, or the daily papers. Our object, rather, is to create our own audience and our own particular function.
We are prepared to undertake all this with patience, aware that sometimes we must fall short of our ambitions, but confident that the men and women exist who can write for such a journal, and who can read it. E. L. Godkin used to hope that America someday would be governed by college graduates, their opinions formed by the reading of serious journals. We are not sure that, in the present state of the higher learning in America, such as ascendancy of the diploma would be altogether a good thing; yet we do intend to seek out the large number of Americans who have undergone the disciplines of higher education, either formally or through their private endeavors; and we intend to publish a journal which ought to interest them, and in which they may feel some confidence.
The general principles of this magazine, which distinguish it sufficiently from most others, are three: first, respect for religious and ethical ideas; second, attachment to conservative social principles; third, interest in the culture of the heart of America—that is, thought and opinion in the Middle West, the South, and the West. These principles require some qualification. As for the first, we do not intend to espouse any particular religious faith, or to advocate any especial ethical system; but we intend to give a full hearing to the claims of religious and ethical knowledge, which have suffered for many years, in our journals and our colleges and universities, from vulgarization or from a half-veiled contempt. As for the second, we mean “conservatism” in its larger sense—not party politics, certainly, and not simply political conservatism, but a belief that the American Republic and the traditions of our civilization are worth preserving; we are not going to sneer at everything old and venerable. As for the third, we do not mean to exclude contributors and readers in the East—far from it—but we expect to afford the interior of America an expression of opinion and talent now hampered by the concentration of publishing in New York, Boston and Philadelphia; we shall try to seek our regional and local thought, and at the same time to link the Middle West, the South, and the West with the East and the world beyond.
We intend to publish a journal which will make it possible for contributors to write and think as well as they possibly can. We shall not try to be popular, and we shall not try to be didactic. We shall not be afraid of the long essay, or the long review-article, or of wit. We hope to publish distinguished short stories, and good verse, and the writing of eminent foreign contributors. We shall encourage the debate and the symposium. Every now and then, we shall undertake a review of reviews, surveying American journalistic opinion on questions of the day. We shall be leisurely, and we shall not be always sober sided. We shall endeavor not to depend on “current awareness” to find a public; we shall seek, instead, to encourage and express considered judgments more important than this week’s or this month’s news. We shall not pretend to be able to predict next spring’s election or next year’s revolution. We want to stimulate discussion, rather than to force our editorial opinions upon our readers. Our object is not to pick quarrels, but to bring about a meeting of men’s minds. Old Alfred Yule, in The New Grub Street, at the prospect of founding a new critical review, growls, “How I shall scarify!” We, however, have no intention of scarifying; we think that the American mind and the American heart, at this hour, require something more generous,
Our editorial advisors are attached to various religious and ethical professions, various political parties, and various private opinions; they have been educated in different disciplines, and are drawn from different regions of the country. They intend to encourage honest debate, not to exact conformity to some secular catechism. Granted a kindly providence, and the support of thinking men and women in the English-speaking world, they hope to revive the best in the old journalism and to mould it to the temper of our time.
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Essays by Dr. Kirk may be found here. Republished from Southern Observer, Vol. 3, No. 8 (August, 1955), pp. 228-30, as reprinted from The Conservative Review: A Magazine of Controversy. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Annette Kirk, the Kirk Center Library, Mecosta, Michigan 49332.