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The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

Meet the man who launched the empire that publishes the other magazines you read.

The Publisher

— Knopf, Inc.

Of all this journalistic success, Brit Hadden lived to see only the dawn of Time. The creative genius behind the magazine's distinctive language died of a streptococcus infection on February 27, 1929, at the age of 31. For the next three and a half decades, the driving force and lone figure at the helm of Time, Inc. would be Henry R. Luce.

And now for what Time Inc. journalists love to call "full disclosure": I was an editor at Time-Life Books for 20 years. Before reading this masterly biography, however, I knew precious little about Henry Luce or his role in founding and shaping the company.

Brinkley, winner of the National Book Award for History for his Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression, is a compelling storyteller. In showing us how Luce’s father came to be an American Presbyterian missionary in China, Brinkley’s narrative re-creates an older period of student activism: from 1888 through the end of World War I, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions dispatched thousands of idealistic young missionaries abroad—not only from the United States but also from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Brinkley captures the anxiety of Luce's young parents, fleeing the murderous Boxer Rebellion with two-year-old Henry Robinson Luce (called Harry, like his father) and his newborn sister, Emmavail. Henry was not only born in China but spent his formative years there, not leaving for boarding school in the United States until he was 14. (Young Luce’s yearlong solo journey to America—a remarkable story in itself—fostered his insatiable appetite for travel.)

Luce's father, was committed, as Brinkley puts it, to "creating in China a modern, scientific social order based on the American and European models." This ambition—and this attitude—the son absorbed through his father’s example. Drawing on interviews, mining the Time, Inc. archives, and sifting through box upon box of letters to and from Henry R. Luce, Brinkley paints a sympathetic portrait of the child, the adolescent, and the complex man he would grow up to be.

Becoming American

The son's commitment to the Asian country of his birth faded considerably during his prep school and college years. As a foreign-born outsider (and scholarship student to boot), Luce strove to distinguish himself—and to fit into an alien culture. He landed in prep school, at age 15, knowing nothing of American football, baseball, or basketball. His conversation was formal, lacking the slangy familiarity he heard all around him. Yet half a world away from his family, this serious, ambitious, near-indigent student grew confident and comfortable enough to be invited to his wealthier classmates’ homes for holidays and school breaks.

Brinkley doesn't gloss over the many controversial aspects of Luce's personality or his role on the American political stage. Luce was often reviled for the perceived "conservative outlook" of his magazines, and for stepping "over the line" to support Republican candidates. His latent affection for China resurfaced in adulthood, when it took the form of a ferocious frustration that the United States did not do more during and after World War II to "save" China from Communism. Luce's philosophy, expressed in his famous essay, "The American Century" (published in Life in 1941), is easy to characterize as jingoist: "[W]e are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization…. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels."

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