With purple prose and oversaturated images, National Geographic reimagined postwar America as a dreamspace of hope and fascination
By James Santel
I. A Hauntingly Beautiful Land
Mobile, Alabama, may be a pleasant waterfront town, but it’s hardly paradise. To writer William Graves, though, it was exactly that, and he described the city in terms befitting a lush Pacific atoll or a sleepy Tuscan hamlet: “I have conjured up visions of a hauntingly beautiful land, where the sun shines endlessly on a gay and delightful people, where every door is open to strangers, and where azalea blossoms are as plentiful as dandelions.” Such rhapsody for the industrial South strikes the contemporary ear as willful at best, if not a bit cracked, until you realize that the year was 1968, and Graves’s employer was National Geographic.
I first encountered National Geographic in the wood-paneled basement of my grandparents’ house in the south suburbs of St. Louis, where a few volumes from the 1970s occupied shelf space between the adventures of the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. The details are hazy, but a few images present themselves: a richly toned photograph of bearded men braving a frothing river; the bright red blood of a whale pouring into icy Alaskan waters; conversational advertisements for RCA, Sony, and Ford. Above all I remember the feeling of reading those magazines—the same sort of literary excitement I’d felt reading Robinson Crusoe and Mutiny on the Bounty, and that I now recognize as the earliest suggestion that I might make a living by telling stories.
Thereafter, the magazine with the yellow border appeared at irregular but memorable intervals, never sought out but seemingly always at hand. Joining my dad on his monthly trips to the barbershop, for instance, I could never finish an article about restoring the USS Constitution in the time it took him to get his haircut, locking me into a Sisyphean cycle of thwarted beginnings that lasted more than a year, until the copy finally disappeared from the waiting area. Then there was the magazine’s gift book on the American Revolution that we kept on a shelf at home, which whetted my youthful appetite for martial history. Later, when I had nearly forgotten about National Geographic altogether, an issue surfaced in the playbill storage room of the Muny, an outdoor theater in St. Louis where I worked the summer before college. I sat outside the stage door, reading the cover story about love while mosquitoes ravaged my ankles. I walked to my car that night with a bloodstained sock and amorous thoughts, whistling as I went.
These memories persist because of their contexts, not their contents. Still, these dimly remembered magazines in my grandparents’ basement proved crucial to my development as a reader. If magazines were U.S. states, National Geographic would be my Missouri—so familiar as to be almost invisible—and The New Yorker would be California, the land to which my dreams ultimately fled. But if my head has been drawn to more elite literary climes, my heart has remained a sucker for those old issues of National Geographic.
When it first appeared in 1888, National Geographic was a dry scholarly journal. But by midcentury, it had become a corollary to Life and Time, vehicle of and outlet for the aspirations of readers like my grandparents, smart people who benefited from a predigital economy and could speak without irony of the American Dream. In a 2007 interview published in National Geographic, John Updike, master chronicler of the postwar American bourgeoisie, said, “Every middle class home when I was growing up somewhere in it had a stack of these yellow back magazines that were somehow sacred.” He was not wrong to invoke the sacrosanct. In the thick of the nation’s nervous breakdown, from roughly 1965 to 1975, National Geographic elevated the liberal faith in American progress to its highest expression. In those years, it produced a series of articles about America that were credulous and sentimental, easily ridiculed and entirely uncool. Yet taken as a whole, they (and their attendant photographs) present a vision of America as a Kodachrome Eden, not ignoring the reality of the times, but reframing it in a kind of otherworldly optimism. If blitheness dates these magazines, it also preserves them. Unlike much of the literature that purported to capture the zeitgeist of postwar America, but now comes across as cranky and desperate in its critique—Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, Updike’s Rabbit Redux—these issues of National Geographic stand as heartbreaking love letters to their times.
II. The Bold Scope of Its Dreams
As a kid, I thought all National Geographic articles were written by the same person—white, avuncular, with a gray buzz cut—and for good reason. You wouldn’t teach these pieces in a nonfiction writing class. The magazine’s format allowed for little individual expression, its template extending even to titles. Take the William Graves piece from March 1968. Its title—“Mobile, Alabama’s City in Motion”—is typical, beginning with the name of the place and appending a simple, enticing description. The magazine rarely strayed from this formula, which was as firmly set in April 1966 (“Wyoming: High, Wide, and Windy”) as in February 1975 (“Baltimore: The Hidden City”).
The lede sets the tone, offering the author a measure of creative leeway within a few broad avenues. First is the tack Graves uses in his Mobile piece, what might be dubbed the High Hopes opening. Here, the writer offers up expectations about the place he is about to visit, sometimes his own, sometimes the nation’s. William Gill takes the latter approach in his March 1965 piece, “Pittsburgh, Pattern for Progress.” Gill quotes Frank Lloyd Wright’s quip that it would be cheaper to abandon Pittsburgh than renew it, then refutes it from his own experience: “Perhaps Wright never stayed long enough to grasp Pittsburgh’s true spirit. … Few people who have seen this swaggering, muscle-bound city have failed to be impressed by its raw power, the dynamic pulse of its industries, the bold scope of its dreams.”
Another favored opening is a sort of in medias res. In this mode, the writer begins the narrative with an exclamation from a friendly local. In “Illinois: The City and the Plain” (June 1967), Robert Paul Jordan watches a boat approach and climbs aboard. He tells what happens next: “ ‘Welcome!’ boomed shirt-sleeved Capt. Dušan Malek. Throwing on his jacket, he ushered me to an easy chair in his pleasant quarters and issued rapid orders to the steward. Soon we were served Turkish coffee, thick and black and sweet.” What a nice man is Captain Malek! What a welcoming state is Illinois!
History also serves as a useful jumping-off point, the author’s location spurring the recollection of an anecdote, as in Joseph Judge’s “Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello” (September 1966). After telling how Thomas Jefferson and his new wife, returning from their wedding, got caught in a snowstorm and had to ride the last eight miles to Monticello on horseback, Judge writes, “One hundred and ninety-three years later to the very day, I recounted that incident to my seven-year-old son Joseph as we drove up that same mountain, in lightly falling snow, to the same destination.”
In other cases, the correspondent may be returning to the city where he got his start as a reporter or was garrisoned during the war; occasionally, he is writing about where he lives. If a writer doesn’t begin with some historical daydreaming, he is almost certain to do so at some point: “Lewis and Clark paused at the Missouri’s great bend and noted its commanding bluffs. On one of those bluffs, I now gaze over the greater city,” writes Rowe Findley in “Kansas City, Heartland U.S.A.” (July 1976). All of these American profiles implicitly use the High Hopes approach; no National Geographic article of this period concludes its introductory section without promising the reader that the place in question has value and is worth reading about. In these issues, National Geographic is as at home in the city as on the range, and seldom is heard a discouraging word. These were the years when Neil Young was singing “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” but National Geographic wanted you to believe otherwise.
Joseph Judge’s inclusion of his son in the Monticello article was characteristic. Children respond to new places with awe—precisely what National Geographic wanted to inspire in its readers—so many of its writers brought their families along for the ride. In The Revolutionary War: America’s Fight for Freedom (1967), the book that captivated me as a child, author Bart McDowell fondly recorded his children’s golly-gee reactions as they explored the battlefields of American Independence. At one point, for instance, McDowell shows two of his sons a Salem newspaper from 1775, prompting the following exchange:
“‘They misspelled the words!’ said Josh, in deep disillusion.
“‘No,’ said Kel scornfully, ‘in those days some of the s’s looked like f’s.’”
The desired effect, of course, was amusement at what issues from the mouths of babes, but the unspoken truth was that the correspondents themselves were hardly less wide-eyed than their progeny. National Geographic reporters seemed to believe everything they were told. Since they spoke mainly to persons of wealth and influence—chamber of commerce presidents are a favorite, and William Graves “calls on” Julie Andrews in his May 1966 ode to California (“California, the Golden Magnet”)—what they were told sounded pretty rosy. In “Illinois: The City and the Plain,” Robert Jordan listens as Mayor Daley boasts of Chicago’s plans “to be rid of every unfit-to-live-in building by the end of 1967.” The author then obligingly strolls “miles through decaying neighborhoods, looking at the city’s effort to turn dismal slums into decent habitations.” Jones poses no questions to those whose houses have been razed, moving on instead to herald the state’s great universities.
To be sure, the writers don’t exclusively stalk the corridors of power. They also seek out humble folk who embody the spirit of a place, people like Eldon Willing, an oyster boat captain who appears in Luis Marden’s “The Sailing Oystermen of Chesapeake Bay” (December 1967). Willing is the ideal avatar of National Geographic’s American idyll, both attuned to difficulties (“Yep, there’s hardship in the oyster business”) and resolutely optimistic, wanting help from no one: “I live in hope. I don’t think it’s ever been so bad as I couldn’t make it.”
Willing’s bit of folksy wisdom might have appeared on the magazine’s masthead as its M.O., a creed that President Johnson voiced from another direction in “Washington: The City That Freedom Built” (December 1964): “[A]lmost nobody in America thinks that much in America is as good as it should be or could be.” It’s never so bad that you can’t make it, and things can always be better than they are: is there a plainer summary of what you might call the American Spirit? To present it this way, stripped of the anxieties of conquest and pollution and strife, is this attitude naïve or admirable? Or both?
III. The Light of Knowledge, the Heat of Controversy
National Geographic was born in October 1888 as the scholarly arm of the National Geographic Society, a stodgy explorers club. The inaugural issue featured brown covers, no photographs, and articles like “The Classification of Geographic Forms by Genesis.” It did not make for particularly good reading.
Credit for popularizing the magazine goes to Gilbert H. Grosvenor, who became its first full-time editor in 1899. He sought to “transform the Society’s Magazine from one of cold geographic fact … into a vehicle for carrying the living, breathing, human interest truth about this great world of ours.” Grosvenor did away with the dry academic prose and encouraged writers to produce stories in the first person. He introduced photography to the magazine’s pages and the famous yellow border to its cover, and he made the magazine available on the newsstand. Despite his efforts, National Geographic still wasn’t exactly living and breathing at midcentury. The pre–World War II stories read like extended AAA travel guide entries, an anthropology professor’s “Where to Stay” directory.
The magazine reached its overawed apex after the war, especially with the coming of the Kennedy administration. Its tone tended to accord with that of the Oval Office’s occupant. Perhaps the most crucial decision Grosvenor had made in his 55-year tenure as editor was to resist calls for the magazine to move its headquarters to New York from Washington, D.C. Its location in the nation’s capital, its commitment to conservation, and its staunch espousal of American ideals made for cozy dealings with the federal government. The 1974 board of trustees included Lady Bird Johnson, former NASA administrator James Webb, and General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, the inspiration for the trigger-happy Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Many a back issue contains photos of Society bigwigs at the White House in black tie. The November 1974 issue presents the magazine’s first editor’s letter, in which Gilbert M. Grovsenor (Gilbert H.’s grandson) described the Geographic’s editorial policy as producing articles that “were factual, of enduring value, and held up the light of knowledge without generating the heat of controversy.”
Given this dictum, it’s easy to cast the magazine as an establishment mouthpiece that fiddled while Detroit and Chicago burned. True, every mention of urban blight is dismissed with cheerful accounts of the slum clearing to come. Granted, a 1965 article on the U.S. Air Force features a jingoistic preface from LeMay, and the author of a 1966 profile of Wyoming doesn’t blink when a Strategic Air Command officer says, “It’s more than just a clever slogan when we say ‘Peace Is Our Profession.’ ” But National Geographic didn’t ignore the unrest of the 1960s; it simply interpreted it in a way that reflected its belief in America’s limitless potential. In his 1966 trek through California, William Graves stops at Berkeley to find out how the campus “could erupt so suddenly into chaos.” He accepts the answer of JoAnne Schwartz, a senior:
The Viet Nam demonstration is a poor example, because it wasn’t really Berkeley. Only a few hundred students were involved out of thousands—most of the demonstrators didn’t even come from here. But the Free Speech Movement is something else; in the end, nearly all of us got involved. I won’t argue the pros and cons of it, because that’s been done to death. But you asked me how it could happen. I guess I would answer: “Because it’s California—and California hasn’t settled down yet.” In a way, I hope it never will, because I suspect it would lose something vital.
This is how National Geographic negotiated the ’60s: by ascribing dissent to the creative energy inherent to America. Berkeley’s student-led Free Speech Movement didn’t arise out of generational strife but out of California’s restlessness, a restlessness brought there by the hardy pioneers of 1849. Urban poverty wasn’t a sign of social stagnation; it was a challenge for American know-how to tackle. National Geographic wasn’t conservative in the Nixonian sense—you’ll never find its correspondents complaining about ungrateful longhairs ruining the country or welfare queens suckling greedily at the federal teat. Still, it refused to believe that America was falling apart. If unrest gripped the nation’s campuses, it was the result of the same untamable independence that sparked the American Revolution. If poverty plagued the ghettos, it could be overcome by American ingenuity. These things were never symptoms of real, intractable problems; they were just new manifestations of the spirit of ’76.
IV. The Dreamwork
As a kid, I would ask my dad what it was like growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, and he would say, “It wasn’t that different.” I had learned about those decades from special issues of Rolling Stone and Time and thought of them as one endless round of assassinations and riots and jungle warfare, narrated by Walter Cronkite with background music by the Rolling Stones. My dad’s point was that, yes, there were assassinations, and “Gimme Shelter” was frequently on the radio, but he also went to school, fell off his bicycle, got excited for Christmas, and felt disappointment when a Cardinals game was rained out.
We were talking past each other, because what I was really asking was whether the ’60s and ’70s looked different. I realized this only recently, after spending an extended period with old issues of National Geographic. The copies lying around my grandparents’ house had conditioned my image of those years. Ansel Adams said, “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” But I did the reverse, bringing National Geographic’s pictorial aesthetic to everything else. Without realizing it, I had accepted that America in those days looked to the naked eye like the spreads in National Geographic. Which is to say that America looked like Kodachrome.
Kodak’s film, famous for its deeply saturated colors, first appeared in National Geographic in the 1930s; by the ’60s, almost every photo in the magazine was in Kodachrome. Until 1972, National Geographic credited its photos with touching specificity, as in “Kodachrome by Bruce Dale.” Kodachrome was so closely associated with the magazine that Kodak gave its last roll of the film, which was discontinued in 2010, to Steve McCurry, the photographer responsible for the 1984 cover portrait of the “Afghan Girl,” the most famous cover in the magazine’s history.
Kodachrome achieved for National Geographic what its writers seldom could, capturing America as a dreamspace, where the most familiar sights become places of fascination. We laugh when William Graves describes Mobile as a “hauntingly beautiful land,” but there’s little other way to describe the window National Geographic’s photographers opened onto postwar American life. David Boyer’s 1966 time-lapse portrait of a blazing neon street in Casper, Wyoming, could have inspired a Stuart Davis painting. James Blair’s image of Big Sur from the same year depicts the coast in a dusk wash of purple and pink. The monotone is interrupted by two easily missed signs of human intrusion: a small streak of red curving along the coastal road—a car’s taillight—and a speck of yellow in a hilltop house, perhaps a lamp. The effect is unspeakably lonely. Bruce Dale’s 1965 image of the incomplete St. Louis Arch shows the monument’s two legs emerging from a thick fog, as if it were being built in the Arctic depths, or perhaps on a bad movie-set depiction of heaven. In 1969, James Amos used a fisheye lens to contort the oppressive buildings of Atlanta’s Peachtree Center into a vertiginous swirl. If it weren’t for the jet plane in the corner of Walter Edwards’s aerial photo of the same year, the Grand Canyon would be unrecognizable as a place on Earth.
These photos are not the sharpest, particularly by the crystalline standard of the magazine’s contemporary digital images. Distant objects tend to haze and smudge in Kodachrome. But the colors have a richness that seems sourced in deeper springs; taking a razor to one of these images, you’d half-expect colors to ooze, sap-like, through the gash. This contrast between rich color and ill-defined backgrounds creates an intimacy that is lost in digital photos. The latter have become ever more lifelike and, correspondingly, have lost the lyricism of the earlier photos. Kodachrome, on the other hand, took the familiar and made it strange, representing the world while changing it.
V. Waking Up
As National Geographic entered the late 1970s, it began to look and sound like its contemporary iteration—less awestruck, more informative. It addressed environmental degradation more boldly; murmurs of global warming appear as early as the November 1976 issue. And although profiles of American cities and regions persisted into the 1980s, by then they were an anachronism. These days, National Geographic still turns its gaze inward, but does so with an increasing focus on the barely offbeat (Garrison Keillor’s 2009 dispatch on state fairs), the apocalyptic (too many ecological crises to count), or the noncontroversial (solemn articles on the anniversaries of D-Day and Midway, reports on wetlands). Looking at these articles in bulk, you notice a striking absence of human beings. When we do make a cameo, we appear mainly as a parasitic species.
In sacrificing optimism to rigor, National Geographic has lost its unintentional poeticism. Its writers and editors in the 1960s and ’70s almost certainly didn’t think of themselves as escapists and romantics, but that’s what they were—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is today an abundance of journalistic agitation about global warming, so much so that the crisis has become another fatiguing aspect of modern America. But few voices remain that will present Alabama to Northerners as an exotic, beautiful place, or Illinois as a land of variety, or Pittsburgh as a land of opportunity. National Geographic assumed that Americans were interested in their own land, and I wonder if we couldn’t use a voice like that today.
Inevitably, the magazine’s interest in the once-great cities of the interior brought it to my hometown. In November 1965, the magazine published “St. Louis: New Spirit Soars in Mid-America’s Proud Old City,” by Robert Paul Jordan, the writer who would later listen to Mayor Daley’s pledge to rid Chicago of unfit housing. Atypically, the article begins with slum clearance, a subject usually introduced later. Jordan lingers on it, using its promise as his premise. He quotes President Johnson:
But at the very summit of her glory, the blight that was to deface dozens of American cities also struck St. Louis. The incredible vitality of this proud Queen of Mid-America began to erode. … You faced a hard choice, and you made it. The people of St. Louis chose progress—not decay.
A map of the city uses red boxes to designate large swaths of redevelopment and public housing projects. They correspond to sections of the city I’ve never heard of: Murphy, Mill Creek Valley, Tandy. Googling these neighborhoods returns news reports of shootings and rueful blog posts about St. Louis’s failed urban renewal projects. As Jordan writes with pride in his article, “By 1970, St. Louis will have torn down and rebuilt a fifth of its 61 square miles at a cost of more than a billion dollars.”
But aside from all the talk of slum clearance—and of thick downtown traffic, unheard of in today’s St. Louis except after Cardinals games—the article presents the city much as I know it: in quiet pursuit of its own business. There’s an overhead shot of a couple lying hand-in-hand on the Washington University campus. There’s a photo of the Planetarium, a hyperboloid structure that sits in view of my old high school’s football stadium, and of the mosaic-adorned interior of the Cathedral Basilica, site of many an elementary school field trip. There’s a description of the Muny, where the mosquitoes pillaged my ankles while I read National Geographic.
I think of my grandparents reading this article, and I wonder what they would have thought. In the bulldozed slums and Eero Saarinen’s rising Arch, did they see the consolidation of the modest comforts that the years after World War II had brought them and millions of others? Or did they hear Johnson’s words as hot air? I imagine it was a bit of both. My grandparents were hopeful, but they were also pragmatists. Still, it’s hard to imagine that St. Louisans of 1965 could have known what their city had by then become—a pleasant river town with pockets of splendor, hamstrung by the division between the city and county—was not a historical detour but rather a new, diminished reality.
Unsurprisingly, Jordan concludes on a hopeful note: “Walking along the old levee, I watched the gathering dusk soften the sullen Mississippi, highway to America, and give it sweetness. Towering overhead, the Gateway Arch pointed as much to tomorrow as to the past.” By the magazine’s standards, that tomorrow was a disappointment for St. Louis, as industry fled and civic squabbling sank the city into comfortable lassitude. It’s a story told many times in the past half-century, with slight variations depending on the city or region. National Geographic offered a different version of those stories, but its vision of the American dream bore the seeds of its own dispelling.
You have to look carefully to find those signs of decay. Three months after it profiled St. Louis, National Geographic ran a piece on river combat in Vietnam by Dickey Chapelle, an eccentric female war correspondent, killed in action before the article’s publication. The piece’s central personage is a young Navy lieutenant named Harold Dale Meyerkord. In prose unusually graphic for National Geographic, Chapelle ends her dispatch with a spare account of the lieutenant’s fate: “Dale Meyerkord, husband, father, leader and teacher of men, dead of a bullet in the brain on a muddy canal 9,000 miles from Missouri.”
Dale Meyerkord was from St. Louis.
The easy response to National Geographic’s postwar heyday is laughter. Who wouldn’t ridicule the 1964 feature “A Sikh Discovers America,” which contains a section entitled “Indian Meets Indians”? Who can suppress a smirk when the last sentence of the 1964 profile of New York reads, “And I said to myself, Amen—for New York, for these United States, and for the world”? It’s easy to mock these issues as period pieces; it’s harder to see what time has made them, which is something more like tragedy. The heartbreak about National Geographic’s postwar golden age lies not only in its refusal to believe that anything but a better future lay in store for the United States. It’s found in a space situated somewhere between that moment and the present, a space (Fitzgerald’s description of the “dark fields of the republic” comes to mind) where National Geographic’s hopefulness meets our nostalgia, headed in the opposite direction; and in that fleeting space, it’s very hard to tell who has let whom down.
James Santel , a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is a writer in St. Louis.