If you want to understand a society in its own time and place, read its magazines.

Not its novels, which will evoke an imagined past or extrapolate (successfully or not) an endpoint to then-contemporary trends; nor its newspapers, which, burdened by the self-knowledge of serving as the historical record, must by and large confine themselves to the facts as they are found on the ground, with no feeling for the poetry of events.

Do you have what it takes to be a Man's Man? Read TIME columnist Joel Stein's funny account of modern-day manhood in 'Man Made.'

Magazines, with their assumed disposability, report from within the cultural currents of their day. They do not report on popular culture—they are popular culture. They are aspirational as well as informational; they show us how a society sees itself, both as it is and as it wishes to be. When I was a teenager, living in the sticks and poring religiously through out-of-date issues of The New Yorker, I was learning something about what it was like to actually live in Manhattan—but I was learning even more about the idea of living in Manhattan, and what it meant.

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That’s the sort of magazine that Gentry was. While its publication history was relatively brief—as noted in the new best-of collection The Gentry Man: A Guide for the Civilized Male, selected and edited by Hal Rubenstein, the magazine was published quarterly from 1951 to 1957, just 22 issues—it came at a pivotal time for American society, and for the American man in particular.

The postwar boom was a time of new social mobility. The middle class expanded as new, well-paying jobs opened up in manufacturing and technology, and Americans found themselves with unprecedented levels of disposable income and leisure time—and with a bewildering array of options for spending both.

Lacking a hereditary aristocracy on which to model itself, this newly affluent middle class sought new definitions for what it meant to life The Good Life. Under publisher William Segal, Gentry put forth an attractive vision, blending European elegance and New World meritocracy with a touch of Zen simplicity.

The Gentry man dresses well, but not ostentatiously. His sartorial hero—profiled in one of a series of articles on great men of history—is Beau Brummel, who was celebrated less for the clothes he wore than for the way he wore them. You will never see him incapacitated by drink, but he can recommend a wine to complement any meal and knows the perfect cocktail recipe for every occasion. His furnishings are impeccable, whether for his country estate or a two-room pied-à-terre on the Upper West Side. He enjoys good food—preparing it as well as consuming it, wherever and however it might come his way. Gentry might publish an elaborate recipe for pressed duck as served at L’Escoffier, but it also ran features on getting the most out of one’s barbecue grill.

Comfortable and confident in all situations, the Gentry man will vacation at Nassau, be it Long Island or the Bahamas, with equal aplomb—and be the best-dressed man in either place. He is a man of action, always ready for a ski trip or a sailing excursion. He knows the rules for a back-alley craps game, carries off a one-handed shuffle at poker and can name three chess strategies to counter the Luzhin Defense. If the most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials had his own magazine, this would be it.

Segal could, for a time, lay claim to that title himself. Self-made millionaire, publisher, world traveler, poet, painter and mystic, fearsome in his eye-patch, student of Asian philosophy—the publisher was a true Renaissance man, and in that curious postwar moment, so brimming with possibilities, he posited that maybe you could be, too.

Looking at these selections from Gentry, I admired them for their graphic daring and innovation—but more than that for the nobility of what the magazine was trying to achieve. Gentry didn’t just want you to be a better consumer—it wanted you to be a better person. Segal’s was a more high-minded, more inclusive version of Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy,” one that explicitly concerned itself with spiritual growth, and one that was open to married guys as well as urban bachelors.

So what happened by decade’s end to kill Gentry, and to leave standard-bearers like GQ and Esquire to slide into irrelevance? What happened, in short, to the American Male?

The answer, in a sense, goes back to Segal’s interest in painting, and his special devotion to the art of the self-portrait. The pages of Gentry are devoted to using the tools of consumer culture like a painter uses colors, to create a self-presentation in a signature style. Choice of clothing, cocktails and card games all make a statement about the subject. But that sudden affluence brought with it culture shock. Men who might have grown up never expecting to own an automobile now found themselves having to choose from several options, searching out the car that presented the most appropriate image of themselves.

In retrospect, it was too much, too fast. We think of the 1950s as a time of stifling conformity, but for most men that uniformity must have come as something of a relief. So it is all too fitting that the men’s magazines that continued to survive and thrive have eventually degenerated into mere consumer guides—little more than glorified catalogs, in the end. The Gentry man’s motto is “Be Yourself.” But it’s hard work being yourself, and most people—men and women alike—can’t be bothered. Not when it’s so much easier just to buy things.

After a day spent riding to the hounds, translating 18th-century Armenian love poetry and contemplating the abstract strategies of go, there's nothing Jack Feerick likes more than slipping into an heirloom kimono, whipping up a platter of oysters Rockefeller, and logging onto to Popdose, where he is critic-at-large.