Charles Agnew McLean – Editor of the Popular Magazine

From the April 10, 1920 issue of the magazine Advertising and Selling, comes this article about Charles Agnew Maclean, the editor of the Popular Magazine.

The Men and Women Who Make Our Mediums: CHARLES AGNEW MACLEAN


One of a Series of Informal Visits with the Leading American Editors and Publishers with the Object of Interpreting What They Mean to Advertisers

Charles Agnew Maclean, Editor of The Popular Magazine
Charles Agnew Maclean, Editor of The Popular Magazine

AFTER a trip of several hundred miles on horseback, a party of travellers, in the year 1911, was crossing the Painted Desert of Arizona, on their way from Flagstaff to Navajo Mountain. Arriving at the canyons, toward the tops of which are great caves left by prehistoric natives, the curiosity of the explorers was aroused to the point of insisting that they be shown the way to the Old dwellings. The Indian guides made their stand perfectly clear—they would not approach these places and could not be bribed to do so. The travellers were assured that any so venturesome as to “inquire within’ would be struck dead by some dread force, or, if the caves were by some chance possibly reached and entered, at least the trespassers would be blinded instantly by the evil spirit. This superstition was sufficient to keep the Navajo Indians from investigating the “dead houses,” as they are called. But it held no terrors for Zane Grey, the author, and his- party, which included Charles Agnew MacLean, editor of The Popular Magazine and editor-in-chief of the large group of publications issued by the firm of Street and Smith. Years before, the latter had become thoroughly familiar with all that is grewsome about death, for he had made the New York City morgue, at Bellevue Hospital, as well as the police stations, his special study, and had haunted these place from S p. m. till r .30 a. m. while on his first newspaper job—with the New York Sun.




Rut the adventures at the morgue had become too irksome to the boy, then only sixteen, and, fortified with an education secured in the public schools of Brooklyn, he left that work to do a variety of reporting for the New York Times, with which newspaper he stayed a year and a half. That made a total of three years on the newspaper side of journalism. Mr. MacLean refuses to admit that, with enough training. he might have grown to be a star reporter, but believes the intimate daily contact with all that is sordid in the city, from the pathetic suicides to the identification of poor, maimed persons, was too strenuous for any young nervous system, and this drove him away from newspaper work. For a year, after breaking all connections with editorial offices and setting all forms of writing aside, he joined a group of mining engineers and weighed ore, when not occupied in bossing a batch of thirty laborers.


Then came the longing for a legal career and he studied law with devotion. The time was not wasted, for it helped him to write “dime novels” in his spare hours and he was at least as fond of the latter diversion as he was devoted to reading law. There were many plots for stories to be found in connection with the courts,


However, about 1905. when The Popular Magazine made its debut, Mr. MacLean became its editor. In the fifteen years he has been connected with that publication, he has helped many writers of fiction to do their best. The names of authors with wide reputations who found their first stimulus from the editorial office of The Popular Magazine, would make a list of considerable length. Mr. MacLean is proud of having bought and published the first novel by Zane Grey. “The Heritage of the Desert.”



On the subject of men who are doing the best fiction today, this editor puts Peter B. Kyne, Clarence L. Cullen, Albert Payson Terhune and Booth Tarkington in the first rank and gives the palm to the latter as the best all around, thoroughly American writer with the finest, most artistic workmanship, He also maintains that the historical novels of Winston Churchill have a permanent value. Too many American writers, Mr. MacLean believes, copy the English ways of writing, and English ideas—which do not fit with the ideal American treatment. It seems to be all right to learn and use technique according to the ways of the English writers, but they should not be imitated. In other words, our truly national work can not be a copy but, rather, must be a real picture, preferably direct from the soil of America.


In this particular, Mr. MacLean believes that Frank Norris applied the right idea, but, perhaps, lacked sufficient opportunity to Work it out before his untimely death. Rupert Hughes is considered by Mr. MacLean to have written some of the best short stories that have been done during the last ten or fifteen years.



In spite of the high cost of print paper and the rise in price of the magazines we are accustomed to bur, probably few of us will live long enough to spend two million dollars for fiction, but this editor has done that very thing and terms himself a wholesale purchaser of raw romance fresh from the typewriter. The total value of the material submitted and turned down in his office, if estimated by the authors of the work, would probably exceed the fabulous German war debt.

As a reader of published work, Mr. MacLean has satisfied himself on the contents Of every book and Story that has ever come within his reach. Robinson Crusoe was, on demand, repeated to him in words of one syllable so often that he is still able to quote verbatim several hundred words from the opening of the Story. At about the same time his nurse wore out a couple of editions of “Alice in Wonderland,” because of the boy’s fondness for listening to that masterpiece. Later, Shakespeare began to appeal and soon Midsummer Night’s Dream” caught up and ran neck and neck with “Peck’s Bad Boy” for first choice.

One of his fondest memories is of “Sister Carrie,” a novel, by Theodore Dreiser, which several times had been stalled in publication. Drieser, who was MacLean’s associate, was then unknown as an author, and he lost spirit and health because of the book’s failure to get proper publicity. The plates of the book finally were sold for junk by one publishing firm, and the writer of the story thought they never could be saved from destruction, When Mr. MacLean cheered him up by investing several hundred dollars in an effort to keep them from the melting furnace until someone could be found who would finance the work. For years the type remained in the backing boxes and was used only as a convenient footrest. Finally, however, the book was produced and the author is now known wherever English is read.

Mr. MacLean feels confident that the present tendency to pay high prices for the work of popular authors, and to make the writing of fiction really worthwhile for those who are giving their time to trade, craft or profession, will not in the least lend to it an ugly, commercial angle and ruin authors. Rather, he believes that when modern business methods were brought into the relations between writers and publishers, the death sentence of the old-time author-propagandist was pronounced. The spirit of paying an honest price for good fiction will stimulate production of a much higher grade than can be produced by the starving author in the proverbial garret. 


Mr. MacLean is an enthusiastic golf player, a venturesome hunter and lover of the Adirondacks; a keen judge of good pipe tobacco and an ardent follower of the prize ring. A fair assortment of hobbies, isn’t it? And enough to prove a cleverly balanced mind out of the office when the day’s work is done. But add to these a great fondness for music of all kinds, and particularly a love for the opera and musical “shows,” and the list is nearer complete. Gilbert and Sullivan, of course, come first on the list of composers of light opera, but George Cohan is close to the top, and his ‘ ‘The Royal Vagabond” is a favorite with this heavy thinker. “Three Little Maids,” an operetta which was produced a few years ago, is prominent among the pleasant memories of this critic, while “The Marriage of Figaro,” an opera not frequently produced in this country, is chosen for preeminent preference.


When Charles Agnew MacLean first presented himself to his Scotch-Irish parents in Larne. County Antrim, Ireland. his mother declared at once that he was to be a preacher and. at the same time. his father made it clear that in his opinion the obviously proper career to predict for the Infant was that of a physician. Nevertheless. among the many occupations so far taken up, he has shown no desire to follow either of these professions. But there is yet ample time to fulfil both the prophecies, for Mr. MacLean is still a young man, just thirty-nine.



  1. TIME MAGAZINE had an obituary for POPULAR MAGAZINE on August 31, 1931, titled "Popular No More". They then went on to state "The history of Popular Magazine is the story of Editor Charles Agnew MacLean's life". The obit also states:

    "Editor MacLean knew a good glass of wine, a good cigar, but spent most of his money for Scotch whiskey. It killed him in 1928. Popular was never the same afterward."

    He was only 48 when he died and Street & Smith did an amazing thing that has never been done for any pulp editor. They published a booklet in a slipcase honoring MacLean. It reprinted several of his editorials and had many pages from authors commenting on his life and influence. It took me over 30 years to track down the over 600 issues of POPULAR, which was called "The training ground for The Saturday Evening Post". It's one of my favorite general interest pulps.

    RIP POPULAR, 1903-1931 and Charles Agnew MacLean, 1880-1928.

  2. I first got interested in The Popular Magazine after reading A.M. Chisholm's stories of Yellow Horse. I have a book collecting some of those, but only a few issues of the magazine itself. It is hard to collect and i'm looking forward to getting more of them. Maybe someday I'll have a houseful of pulps like you do, Walker.

    I kind of picture you like Scrooge McDuck, diving into the pulps everyday :-).Have fun, and if you have the booklet from Street and Smith, maybe you can share something from that.

  3. I have the booklet from Street & Smith which is about pulp size and 63 pages. The paper is quality book paper and it's in a slipcase. The book title is CHARLES AGNEW MACLEAN, "For Auld Lang Syne".

    The reprinted editorials mainly cover literary matters with such titles as The Real Story Teller, Heroes in Fiction, On Literary Style, On Stories With Action, Your Story–Your Magazine, The Writer's Vision, On Editing, and The Moral Force of Good Fiction.

    There then is a section of 54 letters talking about MacLean and his influence. Some of the authors had been selling stories to POPULAR for over 20 years. The letters were from such well known writers as A.M. Chisholm, B.M. Bower, Albert Payson Terhune, Peter B. Kyne, Francis Lynde, Zane Grey, Dane Coolidge, Frank Packard, Fred MacIsaac, and others.

    There is also a nice portrait photo of MacLean, a different one from the one you show above. A great American editor who has been unjustly forgotten.

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