(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On February 21, 1925, a new magazine made its debut. Edited by Harold Ross, financed by Raoul Fleischman (heir to General Baking Company money), and named by John Peter Toohey, a specialist in public relations, the fledgling publication was designed to reflect contemporary urban America. According to the prospectus circulated by Ross in late 1924, “Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will not be what is commonly called highbrow or radical. It will be what is commonly called sophisticated. . . .”

The New Yorker emerged half-grown from the head of Ross. In many respects the magazine has changed little. It had no table of contents and would not acquire one until 1969. Articles were signed at the end, if at all. There was no masthead, nor did one appear as of July, 2000. The headline type designed by Rea Irvin, the magazine’s first art director, remains in use, and the nineteenth century dandy with monocle (dubbed Eustace Tilley by humorist Corey Ford, a frequent New Yorker contributor) who graced the front cover of the first issue reappears annually on the magazine on or about the anniversary of his initial appearance. The magazine still begins, as it did in 1925, with “Talk of the Town” (briefly called “Of All Things” but soon changed). A “Letters to the Editor” page did not appear until Tina Brown’s reign in the early 1990’s.

In other regards, Ross and his staff had to find their way. In the first few years discussion of literature and the arts was weak. In 1927 Dorothy Parker began reviewing books, thereby starting what Yagoda calls “a long tradition of ostentatiously distinguished criticism”: Kenneth Tynan on theater, Pauline Kael on film, Lewis Mumford on art and architecture, Edmund Wilson on books. Ross also had to decide what kind of short stories he wanted to publish. He wanted no quips, no surprise endings, no characters with silly names, nothing risqué, nothing too long, and nothing too expensive (hence the absence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway from the magazine’s pages). The positive elements were less clear. Ross’s first fiction editor, Katharine Angell, who married fellow New Yorker staff member E. B. White in 1929, nonetheless pursued the best writers she could afford. In 1930 three selections from the magazine were chosen forThe Best Short Stories of that year.

Poetry, too, proved problematic initially. Yagoda notes that Ross’s worship of clarity clashed with the inherent ambiguity of poetry. In 1937 Ross suggested that The New Yorker cease carrying verse; but Katharine White protested, and Ross relented. In 1939 he hired the magazine’s first poetry editor, Charles A. Pearce. Over the years, The New Yorker published most of the country’s leading poets, among them Rolfe Humphries, Karl Shapiro, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, and William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stevens’s absence from this distinguished list resulted from the poet’s distrust of the magazine.

The Depression that killed off such New Yorker rivals as Vanity Fair and the Literary Digest did nothing to harm Ross’s periodical. Throughout the 1930’s circulation and advertising revenue rose, as did the magazine’s prestige. By the mid-1930’s it had achieved an eminence that it would retain for decades.

World War II did much to make the magazine more serious, as its contributors filed stories from the various fronts. Perhaps because The New Yorker was still perceived as chiefly a vehicle for humor, its staff members were not given the draft deferrals granted those working for what were regarded as more serious publications. Ross fumed, but the accounts he received from John Lardner (son of Ring), A. J. Liebling, E. J. Kahn, Jr., Eugene Kinkead, and other drafted staff members earned the magazine the praise of the Infantry Journal for its coverage of the war.

Any lingering doubts about The New Yorker’s seriousness ended on August 31, 1946. The entire issue for that day was devoted to John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Every newsstand copy sold out within twenty-four hours; both the ABC and BBC radio networks aired the text in its entirety, and when Hersey’s text appeared in book form, the Book-of-the-Month Club gave a free copy to each of its members. The magazine also broadened its horizons after the war. A “Letter” might now appear from someplace other than Paris or London, and fiction no longer had to be set in the suburbs. In 1943 fiction editor William Maxwell rejected a Peter Taylor story because it was set in Tennessee. Five years later The New Yorker carried Taylor’s “Middle Age” with that same setting. In 1948 Richard Rovere began a series of letters from Washington, D.C.

After Ross died of cancer in December of 1951, William Shawn, a staff member since 1935, succeeded him as the magazine’s editor. Yagoda gives Shawn a mixed review. Throughout the...

(The entire section is 2056 words.)