Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056
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 1950’s, Shawn moved cautiously and hence dully. Whereas Ross had stood up to Joseph McCarthy and his fellow inquisitors, Shawn did not. He notoriously abandoned New Yorkercontributor Kay Boyle when she was attacked for her politics. When Joseph Wechsberg filed a “Letter” from Vienna in 1955, Shawn excised all criticism of Americans and Austrians. Wechsberg protested the cuts, but to no avail. Shawn steered clear of unconventional humorists such as Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, and Thomas Pynchon. Shawn also avoided more serious writers. William Gaddis, William Styron, Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud repeatedly had their work rejected. Even the cartoons in the 1950’s became stereotypical: the wife spending her husband’s money, the executive pursuing his nubile secretary around his desk, the Soviet spokesman taking credit for American inventions.
On the other hand, Shawn encouraged intellectual and literary contributions. Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Richard Lattimore, and Anthony Hecht all published their first poems inThe New Yorker. In “The New Poetry” (New World Writing, April 7, 1954), Donald Hall cited The New Yorker as particularly receptive to the work of serious young poets. Edmund Wilson wrote about the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956) for Shawn, and Mary McCarthy produced long pieces about Venice, Florence, and growing up Catholic. Shawn sent Truman Capote to Russia in 1955 to report on a touring company’s performances of Porgy and Bess. Capote’s “The Muses Are Heard” ran to 50,000 words—longer than Hersey’s Hiroshima.
In the 1960’s Shawn became more daring. Though shunning the stylistic excesses of the New Journalism, The New Yorker began carrying pieces that shared New Journalism’s critical stance toward the status quo. Between 1962 and 1964 Shawn published Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, James Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross” (which appeared in book form as The Fire Next Time, 1963), Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Norman Lewis’s study of the Mafia, Thomas Whiteside’s examination of the dangers of smoking, and a fifty-page book review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962). Richard Harris highlighted the lobbying efforts of the American Medical Association and National Rifle Association, and in 1969 he published a three-part series critical of President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department.The New Yorker also spoke out forcefully and often against the Vietnam War. On May 13, 1967, Roger Angell attacked the bombing campaign. Some two years later, on March 22, 1969, Shawn devoted the “Talk of the Town” to a speech by Harvard biology professor George Wald, in which Wald called the war “the most shameful episode in the whole of American history.” In May of 1970 Richard Goodwin condemned Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Under Shawn’s direction The New Yorker staff became integrated when he hired Faith Berry and Charlayne Hunter. Shawn also changed the magazine’s long-standing policy of not publishing translations, thus opening up its pages to Vladimir Nabokov’s early stories, the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the work of Jorge Luis Borges.
Yagoda notes that for a variety of reasons, not all of them associated with Shawn’s new policies, advertising revenue and hence profits fell dramatically between 1966 and 1971. This was not a good period for magazines in general: The Saturday Evening Post ceased publication in 1969, followed by Look (1971) and Life (1972). Advertisers were turning to television and to special-interest periodicals. Over the next decade, though, the fortunes of The New Yorker recovered. Subscriptions rose by 12 percent and advertising pages by 16 percent, so that by 1981 profits had rebounded. The content during this period remained excellent. In 1966 Shawn named George Steiner, a Cambridge don who later joined the faculty at Yale, as chief book reviewer, and in 1967 he hired Penelope Gilliatt and Pauline Kael to review films. Donald Barthelme, who began publishing in The New Yorker in 1963, John Updike (who had published his first piece inThe New Yorker in 1954), Ann Beattie, Peter Taylor, Bernard Malamud, and Grace Paley made the magazine the premier publisher of fiction. Even humor enjoyed a resurgence, with pieces appearing by Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, and Calvin Trillin.
Excellence turned to preciousness in the early 1980’s. Kael’s fondness for the outré became more pronounced, as did Shawn’s for the abstruse. John McPhee published about geology, E. J. Kahn about grains. New, slick magazines such as the revived Vanity Fair began competing for advertising dollars. For the first time since 1927, The New Yorker lost money in 1985.
That year saw the takeover of the magazine by Samuel I. Newhouse. Though Newhouse promised to retain Shawn as editor for as long as he wanted to remain, Newhouse fired Shawn in 1987, replacing him with Robert Gottlieb, editor in chief at Knopf. Yagoda spends only eight pages on the post-Shawn New Yorker, a period marked by both financial and literary decline. Gottlieb in fact brought new life to the magazine, introducing medical writer Oliver Sacks, Martin Amis, A. S. Byatt, and various international voices to The New Yorker’s pages. Circulation rose, but profits did not, and in 1992 Newhouse made the unfortunate choice of replacing Gottlieb with Tina Brown, editor of Newhouse’s Vanity Fair. Gottlieb’s arrival had precipitated only minor changes in the magazine’s staff; Brown’s regime saw wholesale alterations through resignations and, for the first time in the magazine’s history, firings. As Augustus had claimed to be restoring the Roman Republic only to inaugurate the Empire, so Brown under the guise of returning the magazine to its origins turned it into just another Newhouse publication. Her focus was on the timely rather than the timeless. Articles shrank in length; less fiction appeared. Circulation rose, but profits did not, and in 1998 Brown resigned. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Remnick, whom Gottlieb had introduced to the magazine, succeeded her, with minimal improvement in content.
Over the years The New Yorker has been the subject of various books, from James Thurber’sThe Years with Ross (1959) and Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker (1975) to Ved Mehta’s affectionate reminiscence Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing(1998) and Renata Adler’s dyspeptic Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker (1999). Of all the books about The New Yorker, Yagoda’s is the fullest and most objective account, based largely on a survey of 2,500 boxes of the magazine’s files that span the period from its inception to the early 1980’s. While one may quibble with his decision to focus almost entirely on the Ross-Shawn years, this is the period for which the best documentation exists. Also, this is the period in whichThe New Yorker bestrode the magazine world like a colossus. Though Yagoda’s title is hyperbolic if one takes it to mean that the magazine changed the world, The New Yorker did create its own universe. As one longtime reader wrote to Yagoda, this was a place “where Peter DeVries . . . was forever lifting a glass of Piesporter, where Niccolo Tucci (in a plum velvet dinner jacket) flirted in Italian with Muriel Spark, where Nabokov sipped tawny port from a prismatic goblet (while a Red Admirable perched on his pinky), and where John Updike tripped over the master’s Swiss shoes, excusing himself charmingly.” That magazine is gone forever, and the world is the poorer for its loss.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 861.
The Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 2000, p. 18.
The Independent, April 8, 2000, p. 11
The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 13, 2000): 6.
The Observer, March 5, 2000, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly 247 (January 3, 2000): 64.
The Washington Post Book World, March 1, 2000, p. 9.
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