Genius in Disguise

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For readers familiar with The New Yorker and with the literature on this influential periodical, Thomas Kunkel’s biography represents the first comprehensive effort to reckon with the role of its founding editor and his legacy. In his acknowledgments, Kunkel carefully acknowledges the work of his predecessors, but he rightly points out their shortcomings. Dale Kramer’s biography, Ross and the “New Yorker” (1951), appeared shortly before Ross died, so that the author had no opportunity to assess the magazine with any perspective, especially since most staff members, including Ross, had refused to cooperate with him. James Thurber’s The Years with Ross (1959) is an extraordinarily valuable and entertaining memoir, but it is as much about Thurber as it is about Ross, which means that many features of Ross’s complicated character are not revealed. Similarly, Jane Grant, Ross’s first wife, provides many insights into the magazine’s establishment in Ross, “The New Yorker,” and Me (1968), but not surprisingly, it does not treat Ross with a biographer’s sense of his whole life. Finally, Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker (1975) is an elegant memoir, but—Kunkel acknowledges—it roughs Ross up rather badly and leaves one wondering how such an irascible and ignorant man ever produced such a sophisticated magazine.

Kunkel is able to deliver exactly what his book title offers: both a full biography of Harold Ross and a history of a magazine that itself made history. Kunkel’s job was made easier because he had the full cooperation of the magazine’s staff. He also benefited from the cooperation of Ross’s daughter and had access to the voluminous New Yorker files now deposited at the New York Public Library. He has used all this source material in a fluent, entrancing style that is a tribute to a magazine that prided itself on its lack of cant and on precise, graceful use of language.

The Ross who appears in earlier biographies and memoirs—gruff, rather 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 of the editor (his crudity in the midst of a sophisticated world) is superbly explained in this exemplary biography.

What mattered most to Ross, Kunkel shows, was writing. He was first and last a reporter. He had grown up in Aspen and by the time he was twenty-one had worked on several newspapers and already developed a devotion to describing the world as accurately as possible. This professional probity existed side by side with his Westerner’s distrust of the cosmopolitan East and of a complicated world. It was Ross’s first wife, Jane, who convinced him that New York City would fulfill his ambitions as a reporter, and that was why Ross stayed there. Still, he never thought the city—any city, actually—was the locus of human values. Whenever possible, he went home to Colorado on vacation. He would have stayed there, too, if he could have found a way to edit The New Yorker in Aspen.

Intensely curious about nearly everything, Ross wanted to know the truth about a phenomenon no matter whether he cared for it or not. He thought that people should know about new books, plays, and cultural and political events even if readers rejected the values reflected in his magazine. On several occasions Ross bitterly opposed his contributors’ politics and even worried that their left-wing sentiments would get his magazine in trouble. But he never backed down in a fight with anyone who challenged the facts or opinions purveyed by the magazine. Even formidable figures such as J. Edgar Hoover got the brush-off when they tried to intimidate the editor.

Kunkel shows that Ross’s devotion to entertainment and news helped him grow as an editor and ensured that his magazine would develop into one of the world’s most important publications. It was during World War I, while he was working for the army periodical Stars and Stripes, that Ross conceived the idea of The New Yorker, although he had neither the magazine’s name nor its format clearly in mind yet. He realized the need for a truly contemporary vehicle for writers, one that would include reportage, social...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)