Genius in Disguise Essay - Critical Essays

Genius in Disguise

Thomas Kunkel’s biography represents the first comprehensive effort to reckon with the role of THE NEW YORKER’s founding editor and his legacy. The Ross who appears in earlier biographies and memoirs—gruff, literal in his reading of fiction, distrustful of poetry, a Westerner (from Colorado) never quite at ease in New York City and yet devoted to producing a world-class magazine that would entertain and inform a literate, metropolitan audience, is present in Kunkel’s biography. Yet what had seemed a paradox in earlier accounts (his crudity in a sophisticated world) is superbly explained in this exemplary biography.

What mattered most to Ross was writing. He was first and last a reporter. By the time he was twenty-one, he had worked on several newspapers and developed a devotion to describing the world as accurately as possible. Intensely curious about nearly everything, he wanted to know the truth about a phenomenon no matter whether he cared for it or not. He thought people should know about the new books, plays, cultural and political events even if they (and sometimes Ross himself) rejected the values of what was reported in the magazine.

Perhaps because of his rough edges and areas of ignorance, Ross hired sophisticated editors and writers. Nearly all of them came to respect his courageous commitment to producing a first-rate magazine. Ross put writers first. He demanded seemingly endless revisions and arduous fact- checking, but he abided by a philosophy once expressed by NEW YORKER editor Wolcott Gibbs: Edit a writer so as to preserve his style, if he had a style. This is precisely what the Harold Ross tradition meant for the whole magazine: THE NEW YORKER would survive so long as it had a style and everyone worked to preserve that style.

Sources for Further Study

Advertising Age. LXVI, April 17, 1995, p. 22.

American Heritage. XLVI, April, 1995, p. 136.

AJR: American Journalism Review. XVII, April, 1995, p. 56.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 30, 1995, p. B4.

Columbia Journalism Review. XXXIV, May, 1995, p. 65.

Library Journal. CXX, February 15, 1995, p. 162.

London Review of Books. XVII, June 8, 1995, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 9, 1995, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 2, 1995, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 23, 1995, p. 51.