Seeing Double

With publication suspended indefinitely and writers threatening to sue over missed paychecks, it took a visit from Bruce Springsteen to save a Harvard professor's beleaguered magazine.

When DoubleTake Magazine was first published in the summer of 1995, it confronted readers with an indictment of the media’s capricious coverage of current trends and set forth an almost impossibly noble mission. “These days,” the editors wrote, “much of what we know about each other, and much of what we learn—from television, newspapers, and journals—reinforces our separateness and confirms our distrust. We pray that this magazine will help to bind us, one to the other, by trying to understand the distances between us, by recognizing that which we hold in common, and that which we might share.”

Last month, Bruce Springsteen played two sold-out benefit concerts for the magazine, saving it from near-certain financial ruin. In the intervening years, DoubleTake had won numerous awards, moved its headquarters from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies to Somerville, Mass., and withstood public complaints and legal threats from contributors who waited years before being paid.

“To be blunt about it, we needed dough,” explains the magazine’s founder, Dr. Robert Coles ’50, Agee Professor of Social Ethics. “We desperately needed to pay people who had written for us and whose pictures we’d used.” The situation, he says, “had put us in a moral bind.”

This explanation is particularly apt. The mission DoubleTake set forth in its first issue was a profoundly moral one—and in their determination to fulfill it, the editors had assumed an almost messianic stance regarding the sanctity of their message. But even non-profit enterprises are eventually called to account for their financial solvency, and DoubleTake’s provisional approach to the issue has more than once jeopardized the medium of their message.

Life History

DoubleTake is clearly a labor of love. After reading the 128 pages following the editors’ note in its premiere issue—which contain personalized narratives ranging from a poem by Seamus Heaney to a photoessay of life in the Chicago barrio to impressionistic short stories—even the most skeptical reader would be moved to appreciate its social conscience. In its variety, consistency and precision of editorial expression, DoubleTake is unique. No word goes unillustrated, and no picture unexplained.

New publications rarely achieve such a unified articulation of their publishing philosophy, not only because they usually cede some editorial authority to sales and marketing departments, but also because they have not yet had time to think through the implications of their tacit intentions. On both points, DoubleTake drew on the advantages of its situation. Its funding came from the Lyndhurst Foundation, and its mission had been percolating in Coles’ mind throughout the four decades of his career.

In a recent interview, Coles referred frequently to the connection between “everyday life” and “the kinds of personal responsibilities we have…toward one another in a community, toward the nation, the world.”

But one could just as easily find this message in the syllabus to his course General Education 105, “The Literature of Social Reflection,” which reads, “we will try to compare various modes of social observation; and at the same time explore the ethical issues that confront… those ordinary people caught in a particular social crisis, and not least, those who try to make sense of what others initiate politically, struggle with psychologically, endure socially.”

Because DoubleTake reflects Coles’ personal and professional history so closely, it is difficult to locate its moment of inception. Coles traces it to his days as a Harvard undergraduate, and to a paper he wrote on William Carlos Williams. His tutor suggested that he send the poet a copy of his essay, and the two became friends.

“He had dreamed of getting a magazine going,” Coles says, “not only in poetry but to deal with some of the other issues he felt were important…Those were his words: Words and pictures. He knew, of course, of Life and Look, which at that time were very much part of the American scene. But look: Life and Look are gone, and there are no magazines that offer a visual aspect of life.”

Another mentor who emphasized the importance of visual expression, and another member of DoubleTake’s “spiritual board of directors,” was novelist Walker Percy. Coles wrote a two-part profile of Percy for The New Yorker, and the two became close friends. “He’s the one who first thought the idea of the magazine up,” Coles says. “He encouraged me to try to put in a magazine the kinds of literary and visual values that he thought were important in a nation that is used to watching television and going to the movies, and is therefore visually oriented.”

Coles drew directly on Percy’s vision as he developed DoubleTake “in the sense that people were to look at the magazine and be informed and read, in what he considered to be a way neither patronizing nor didactic… [He said,] ‘Let the magazine be a voice, not only for the intelligentsia, and not only to give voice to the intelligentsia…[but] for the ordinary people of the country. The people who work, who go to offices, who work in factories, who are going about their ordinary lives.’”

Percy also said that “a good magazine can be a good schoolroom,” and Coles took these words to heart as well. When he started teaching General Education 105, he crafted a syllabus that captured Percy’s values not only in its intentions, but also in its substance. Beginning with James Agee and Walker Evans’ photographic social history “Let us Now Praise Famous Men,” the reading list included works by Percy, Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and an encyclopedia of other socially-conscious observers.

In a sense, it was this course that eventually became DoubleTake. The documentary productions of the Progressive Era are the tradition in which the magazine operates, Coles explains. “What the magazine does is it offers that classroom for the reading and viewing public…And that course carries on, I hope and pray, in what we do with the magazine.”

Mission Accomplished?