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Double vision
Bruce Springsteen rescued DoubleTake magazine. But can the Somerville-based quarterly save itself?
BY CAMILLE DODERO

DOUBLETAKE is a small magazine with big ideas. A full-color showcase of photography, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the Somerville-based publication is a documentary-style quarterly about nothing and everything: cubicle dwellers, tunnel diggers, dead authors, basketball hoops, perspiring pugilists, gross-anatomy labs, female drill sergeants, drive-through churches, Alaskan snowflakes, Romanian ghettos. In the words of founding editor Dr. Robert Coles, DoubleTake seeks to be a resource "of the people, by the people, and for the people," so it balances contributions from big-name writers like Susan Faludi, John McPhee, and Joyce Carol Oates with occasional works from schoolchildren and "ordinary" citizens.

If thereís a special wing of the intellectual establishment for the great and the good, then Coles is a member. Born in 1929, he studied at Boston Latin, Harvard University, and Columbia Medical School. Trained as a child psychiatrist, the 73-year-old has cultivated parallel careers over the course of his life: psychiatrist ("Iíve never stopped seeing patients"), Harvard professor, social activist, public intellectual, prolific writer. Author of more than 60 books, Colesís literary yield includes works of biography, essays, poetry, social psychiatry, creative nonfiction, and cultural anthropology. In 1973, the second and third volumes of his Children of Crisis series won the Pulitzer Prize; in 1998, Coles received Americaís highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His range of friends and associates is just as impressive: from towering public figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to less familiar cultural luminaries such as fiction writers Walker Percy and Flannery OíConnor, poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams, pioneering child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day.

With a background like that, Coles could have pursued any number of projects as he entered the latter phase of his career. He made an extremely demanding choice: to publish DoubleTake, which he considers an extension of his two primary careers in teaching and child psychiatry. "The kind of doctor I have been is one that works with children. And my mind tries to capture that world that they have lived in," he says. "I thought to myself years ago, it would be nice if people could hear and see what I hear and see."

Under Colesís stewardship, DoubleTake launched at Duke Universityís Center for Documentary Studies in 1995, funded by a $10 million grant from the Tennessee-based Lyndhurst Foundation. But then, just a few years later, Duke let the publication go; administrators felt the magazine was depleting the Center for Documentary Studiesí resources. Unhappy with the split, Coles relocated his creation to Somervilleís Davis Square. Trouble was, after having lived lavishly on philanthropic subsidization, DoubleTake hadnít developed business sense, and now that it was on its own, it had no idea how to manage money. The magazine sank so steadily into debt that it was forced to suspend publication last summer. By the end of 2002, its subscriber base, a figure that once surpassed 75,000, had fallen to 20,000.

After months of trolling for deep pockets and courting local institutions for affiliation, the magazineís staff had nearly abandoned hope of ever publishing again: this past December, $400,000 worth of accounts remained in arrears. But then, in February, an unlikely savior swooped in to help: Bruce Springsteen performed two benefit concerts at the 891-seat Somerville Theatre, raising almost a million dollars for DoubleTake. But controversy clouded that situation, too. A series of tragicomic blunders concerning ticket prices almost sank the benefit and marred the eventís promotion.

The Bossís benevolence undeniably rescued the magazine, but it provided only a temporary solution, a sort of band-aid for a head wound. Springsteenís munificence merely bought the publication time ó time to regroup, time to develop a plan for regaining financial solvency. If DoubleTake doesnít use that time efficiently, it wonít be alive in 2004.

So can a magazine that favors Ukrainian nuns over J.Loís buns find a place in a culture obsessed with trends, short-lived styles, and vapid pop culture? How boldly can a work dependent on external support redefine a genre without sabotaging itself?

More practically, where does DoubleTake go from here? "Thatís the million-dollar question," says staff writer Kirk Kicklighter. "What are we going to do now?"

IN THE CONTEXT of the publishing industry, DoubleTake is something of an enigma. Interlacing the literary tradition of the New Yorker with the intellectual rigor of the New York Review of Books, the photojournalistic realism of Life magazine, and the visual elegance of a Museum of Modern Art catalogue, the 120-page journal is slick, but essentially cerebral. Priced at $10 an issue, it eschews conventional politics, current events, and pop culture in favor of more universal subjects spun from the theme of human community, such as Phnom Penh street children, Southern factory workers, and Illinois steak houses. And the abstract mission delineated on its Web site couldnít be reduced to a snappy tagline: "to present compelling, insightful stories ó real and imagined ó that open windows onto the human experience." In practice, thatís an indistinct way of describing the distinct: the winter 2000 issue includes a 15-line poem about a mountaintop; an 18-page spread on imprisoned women, complete with handwritten missives penned by the inmates; and a black-and-white photo-essay on a soon-to-be-demolished Dublin housing project. In the wrong hands, such unglamorous, mundane topics would become predictable treacle. But in the hands of DoubleTakeís editors, they become quite beautiful ó acts of editorial transcendence.

"Weíre trying to show people itís not just the powerful or the famous that are interesting," explains Kicklighter, who unhesitatingly left a reporting position at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to work for DoubleTake. "Ordinary people are fascinating." That universal respect for humanity is one of DoubleTakeís strengths. It tries not to patronize its subjects, treating scrawny boys at a Maine summer camp, potbellied Italian women in the North End, and Nebraskan telemarketers with equal respect.

As a result, DoubleTake has garnered reams of critical acclaim since its conception. Not only did it win the 1998 National Magazine Award for General Excellence, but the quarterlyís editorial quality has been consistently commended by its peers. "For anyone with the slightest interest in literary magazines, DoubleTake is an event," trumpeted the Washington Post. "It doesnít even smell like other magazines," rhapsodized Newsweek in 1998. "DoubleTake is as gorgeous as ever," oohed the Boston Globe in 2001.

"This is the first job Iíve ever had where I was nervous to carry on," says Tom Lowenstein, an executive editor who came on board last summer, after the publication went on hiatus. "I donít want the first issue that comes out with my name on it to be the first bad one."

Much of the magazineís strength comes directly from Coles. Even though he takes great pains to downplay his role at DoubleTake ó in the upcoming volume, his name will sit below those of the other staff on the masthead ó Coles is the only reason it exists. The Lyndhurst Foundation donated $10 million to Dukeís Center for Documentary Studies primarily to sponsor Colesís dream of creating a documentary-style magazine about "people living their lives," as he puts it. And the values that underpin DoubleTake can be found in a general-education course Coles taught at Harvard called "The Literature of Social Reflection," a class whose reading list included George Orwellís The Road to Wigan Pier, Ralph Ellisonís The Invisible Man, and Walker Percyís The Moviegoer. Students nicknamed the section "Guilt 105" because, as the syllabus clearly articulated, the coursework wrestled with the ethical quandary of "the person of relative privilege or good education who wants to document the condition of those less fortunate."

A clear articulation of this quandary (and the first assignment in Colesís course), can be found in James Agee and Walker Evansís Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the now-classic collaboration between a writer and a photographer who traveled down South for six weeks to document the lives of Depression-era tenant cotton farmers. In explaining the vision behind his beleaguered brainchild, Coles consistently invokes the work of Agee and Evans, along with the phrase "words and pictures" ó meaning that DoubleTake places equal emphasis on text and image, a dual approach to examining culture Coles wants to convey with the term "double take." The concept is also expressed in Seamus Heaneyís play The Cure at Troy, which includes the verses, inscribed in every issue, "Call miracle self-healing:/The utter, self-revealing/Double-take of feeling."

If Coles seems vague about his undertaking, itís intentional. "Bob doesnít want to put the magazine into a box," says Kicklighter, who was one of Colesís teaching assistants at Harvard. "I meet somebody at a party and say I work for DoubleTake and they ask me to explain what it is. And I have trouble explaining what it is."

"If we were classifiable, weíd be in trouble," cautions Coles. "Part of the purpose of the magazine is to break down conventional modes of thinking by offering new voices, new visions, good writing, and good photography that should unnerve a little bit."

Trying to deconstruct the magazine medium using the mediumís own tools is certainly a noble endeavor, but one that doesnít lend itself to traditional literary nomenclature. And so when itís mentioned to Kicklighter and Lowenstein that the word "journalism" isnít commonly used as part of DoubleTakeís vernacular, even they canít agree on language that best characterizes their vocation. "Journalists think itís possible to tell the truth," offers Lowenstein, son of civil-rights activist Allard Lowenstein. "Journalists have ethics ó like you canít be part of the story. And I think, ĎWhat journalist isnít part of the story?í"

"I use the term Ďliterary journalismí to describe what James Agee did," Kicklighter proposes.

"Sure, the terms are all subjective," says Lowenstein. "But I think that is what makes you a documentarian more than a journalist."

"But Ďdocumentarianí is kind of a pretentious word," says Kicklighter.

"Well, what do you want to call us?" Lowenstein asks.

Thereís no answer.

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Issue Date: May 9 - 15, 2003
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