The Influence of Encounter
The endless pace of change in our media landscape regularly plays tricks upon all of us.
Many have seen the amusing web video in which a very young child repeatedly attempts to click or swipe the colorful pages of a magazine, before finally declaring it “broken” to his smiling father, who finally hands him an “unbroken” iPad. Similarly, for over half a century US News and World Report ranked as one of America’s most influential weekly newsmagazines, but teenagers today probably consider it as just being some sort of website guide to colleges. And Newsweek, once even a more powerful and influential publication, with many millions of worldwide subscribers less than a decade ago, was sold in late 2010 ago for a single dollar, and is even now in the process of disappearing into a web-upstart calling itself “The Daily Beast.”
All these recent developments should be kept in mind when we consider the proper place in history of Encounter, a London-based magazine which was published for nearly forty years before finally closing at the beginning of the 1990s, soon after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that for 95% of American intellectuals under the age of 40, the name means almost nothing, while for those over the age of 60, it carries enormous weight and significance. The founding co-editors were American journalist Irving Kristol and British poet Stephen Spender, with European intellectual Melvin Lasky later serving as the primary editor for the last thirty-odd years of Encounter’s existence.
From its 1953 launch, backed by the secret financial support of the CIA and British Intelligence, the ideological orientation of the magazine constituted what is sometimes called “Cold War Liberalism,” which at that time was a stance sharply different from that of America’s far more leftward leading opinion journals such as The Nation and The New Republic, or Britain’s The New Statesman.
Based on positions, influence, and key writers and personnel, Encounter might be considered the intellectual forefather of America’s present-day neoconservative movement, but probably has an almost equally strong claim to being a direct ancestor of much of today’s mainstream-liberalism as well. Indeed, the quality and influence of the magazine is such that New America Foundation co-founder Michael Lind, who falls into neither of those ideological camps, has described it as “The best magazine of ideas ever, full stop.”
The statue of once-mighty Ozymandias stands trunkless in the desert, and until five weeks ago a similar fate had seemingly befallen Encounter, whose Wikipedia entry was merely a stub of just a few sentences, mostly regarding the 1967 scandal when the CIA funding was revealed. But as a completely unanticipated consequence of our Historical Research Competition, Scott Lahti of North Berwick, Maine choose to fully restore this intellectual monument, producing a new Encounter Magazine entry twenty-fold larger in size and incorporating a thorough discussion of the history, politics, and intellectual impact of what was probably one of the most influential publications of the second half of the twentieth century. He received our First Prize for his outstanding effort.
Down through August, Encounter may have constituted an obscure and totally insignificant buried tidbit within Wikipedia’s vast collection of human knowledge, but the magazine’s description now stands as far more detailed and extensive than that of many of today’s most prominent publications such as The Atlantic, Time, Harpers, and The Nation, and fully comparable to those of The New York Times, The New Republic and The New Yorker. Furthermore, since the complete Encounter Archives are online and freely-linkable in our content-archiving system, the Wikipedia article includes numerous links and references to many of Encounter’s most important articles and authors, something which those other ongoing publications mostly prohibit for practical business reasons. So in this particular case, the long-dead do enjoy some clear advantages over the still living in the marketplace of ideas.
I hope and expect that as time goes by, more and more of the leading publications of the last century or two will similarly regain their proper standing in the catalogue of our modern intellectual life, and will no longer be limited to just a few sentences of often one-sided or misleading description.
Aside from Lahti’s outstanding entry on Encounter, we were very pleased that our competition attracted numerous other fine submissions, which helped to illustrate the resource value of the millions of pages of high-quality content material we have now made permanently available online. The names and authors of the winning entries have now been posted.
The Second Place winner was Creating the “First Lady”: Presidents’ Wives in Popular Magazines, 1880-1930, by Donna L. Halper, a Communications professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her study was a very detailed and meticulously documented history of the awareness and evolving role of “the American First Lady,” based on the coverage found in our major popular magazines across nearly the last two centuries.
Another winner was Women’s Health Protective Associations in the United States by Amelia Bonea, a Romanian-born historian now at Tokyo University, presented the history of these health organizations, from their earliest origins in the late Nineteenth Century.
And The American Russian Institute by Fred S. Naiden, an ancient historian at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, provided a very interesting account of the pro-Soviet propaganda activity of New York City’s American Russian Institute between the 1920s and 1940s. The discussion especially focused on the Institute’s publication, The American Quarterly of the Soviet Union, and its young Communist field director, Moses Finkelstein, a Columbia graduate student who eventually ended his career as Sir Moses Finley, a pillar of the British academic establishment and a leading Cambridge Don.