In around 1954 or 1955, when I was only seven or eight years old, I began reading Sport magazine every month. Like so many monthlies in those days, it ran very long articles, and it featured an outstanding group of writers including Ed Linn, Roger Kahn, Al Stump, and Ed Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald particularly caught my eye for some reason--his pieces had a quiet calm about them--but in 1960, he disappeared from the sporting scene, and I had no idea what had happened to him.
I found out in the mid-1990s when I happened on his autobiography, A Nickel an Inch. Earlier, I had gotten ahold of one of his first efforts as a ghostwriter, a book he had done with Lou Boudreau about the 1948 Indians, about whom I had already written (but not yet published) a book of my own. He had gone on to much bigger things: an editor at Doubleday, the head of the Literary Guild in the mid-1960s, and eventually the chairman of the Book of the Month Club. What I did not know the first time I met him was that he was an alcoholic. Like many other Second World War veterans, he had collapsed in retirement and wound up in a rehab facility in Minneapolis called St. Mary's. Typically, he had turned that into a wonderful book called That Place in Minnesota, which I have read more than once. Alas, heart problems caught up with him, and he died in his late 70s in the late 1990s.
I got to see him several times, and he discussed what had happened to publishing. He was very upset by the influence of MBAs. His own philosophy, stated in A Nickel an Inch,, was simple: one could, he said, make more money than anyone really needed publishing books that intelligent people wanted to read. But the MBAs thought one could make more money publishing books less intelligent people would want to read, and that was already affecting the quality of what was published. Another important trend was segmented marketing. In the middle of the century the Book-of-the-Month club turned a great many writers into national figures, but once they gave up their monthly Main Selection they lost their power. "It doesn't take as much as it used to be to make a best-seller," an agent commented to me recently.
Publishers and movie studios used to combine their concern for profits with a concern for art and culture. They published undistinguished money-makers and made films for the masses, but they also promoted more distinguished writers and, after the late 1960s, made remarkably creative films. That continued through the 1990s, but it is much less true now. The teen audience rules most multiplexes. (I am fortunate now to have moved back to the Boston area, centrally located among three different art houses. Very few Americans can say as much.) "Adult drama" is now poison at the box office. Cable TV, as I have mentioned, has filled some of the gap with series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland. Gen Xers and Millennials do not go to many movies as adults, except with their kids. They have also lost touch with our film legacy.
The rebirth of western culture that began in the renaissance, led to the Enlightenment, and peaked, apparently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not come out of nowhere. High educational ideals created both its achievements and its audience. It is moribund now in the United States because no cultural values compete with market values, and we are very much poorer for it. These are large topics, and the change has taken place with such terrifying speed that it we are already taking it for granted. That is a fascinating commentary on human nature, whose attitude towards the past varies enormously from century to century.