Admiring Bill Wasik's Writing

In today's Wall Street Journal, I review Bill Wasik's new book, And Then There's This. The book, a treatment of the mysterious cultural fads and trends that seem to crop up on the Internet with no explanation, makes lively reading. As a longtime admirer of Wasik's writing, I was not surprised. I first encountered it in Harper's, where he works, in the best article I've ever read about the financial press. Here's a flavor of that piece:

We do, happily, know what genuine business writing might resemble, because in its earliest years Luce's Fortune, for all its imperfections, achieved it. Reading the Depression-era Fortune at seventy years' remove, one is struck not by the magazine's purported progressivism--scarcely an issue would pass without some sarcastic aside about union labor--but instead by its critical distance. Although aimed at the businessman, Fortune never pretended to serve his immediate self-interest. It held industry apart as an object of analysis; and insofar as it flattered the businessman, it never did so with advice on stock picking. Eric Hodgins, a writer and editor at Fortune who himself penned one of the era's most controversial pieces of journalism, a 1934 expose of European munitions makers, put it thus:

The American businessman remained under the genuine delusion that he, unaided, had built America and was entitled to his corresponding rewards. ... [Fortune] took the view that business was indeed entitled to understanding but that the businessman would have to pay a price for it, which was fuller disclosure and franker criticism than he had been accustomed to. And it was this insistence that gained for Fortune during the 1930's the reputation of being "anti-business."

Of course Fortune was not anti-business: to the contrary, it was incredibly enthusiastic about its subject, but not in the narrow sense that dominates today. Fortune found businesses interesting in their own right, not simply as repositories of shareholder value. Luce had famously declared it "easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers," and his dictum was followed quite literally: by 1933 the writing staff boasted James Agee, Russell Davenport, Schuyler B. Jackson, and Archibald MacLeish. Lyrical writing was the natural extension of Fortune's interpretive, historical perspective on business.

The magazine's second issue, published in March 1930, featured the first offering from the thirty-eight-year-old MacLeish. The lead paragraph of his unsigned piece, which delved with great and exuberant detail into the "Industry of Pie," ran as follows:

On a buttress of white tile stands a battery of nickeled cylinders with neat glass gauges where the coffee bobs. Above, a steel rack spiders down the wall. On the rack are rows of circles like a frieze of coins. Each coin is approximately ten inches across, two inches through, beveled on the under edge, brown as an antiqued painting. Each weighs a rough three pounds. A knife will cut it. Three divisions will reduce it to six approximate triangles. Each triangle will emit a faint warm smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. Subdivided with a four-pronged fork, and tasted, the mouth remembers apples. Cheese consorts with it. Coffee leaves it sweet.

There is no self-interested angle at which the day's reader could have approached MacLeish's piece, except perhaps as an aficionado of pie. There is no discussion of pie stocks, or of apple futures, or of opportunities in pie work. The Industry of Pie was, to MacLeish, an inherently worthy subject, and by the time one finishes reading the piece one is compelled to agree.