SOURCE: "Thoughts about the 'New Yorker'," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXV, No. 9, July 13-27, 1992, pp. 10-12.
[An American author, Hamburger worked as a staff writer for the New Yorker beginning in 1939. In the following essay, he reminisces about various figures and editorial characteristics associated with the magazine.]
Writers have memories, not crystal balls. Moreover, it is extremely dangerous to speculate about the future; matters rarely turn out the way one expects. So when I heard (an overwhelming din) and read (much of it misleading and superficial) that a new editor was to replace the gifted Robert Gottlieb at the New Yorker, the best I could do was sit down, keep calm and think about the past. And the past, in my case, goes back a long way.
I went to work at the magazine in 1939, the 15th year of its existence. I was 25. Like so many other would-be writers, I was drawn by its magical mix of fact, fiction, wit, art and comment, but mostly by its intellectual honesty, civilized skepticism and gentle irreverence. I started out as a reporter for the "Talk of the Town" section. This brought me face to face with the volcanic founding editor, Harold W. Ross, since he had a habit of sitting down with a young reporter and going over his piece line by line. Ross cast a spell, a compound of fierce candor, bubbling humor and an almost messianic quest for clear, truthful writing. Above all, truthful.
One of the many cliches that make up the so-called "mystique of the New Yorker" is the old saw that Ross was not putting out a magazine for the old lady from Dubuque. Ross, in his wisdom, would have been delighted to have the Iowa lady subscribe, and today there are 127 New Yorker subscribers in that lovely Mississippi River town. (I'm a sucker for river towns, having been born on the Ohio.) Ross was quixotic, but he knew what he wanted. The magazine, he said, should "be good, be funny and be fair," a healthy prescription for a general state of well-being.
Another hapless notion has it that there is "a New Yorker style"—everybody writing in the same predictable tone. Just try to find the common denominator in the work of, say, E. B. White, Roger Angell, Rachel Carson, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, Janet Flanner, Andy Logan, William Maxwell, A. J. Liebling, Adam Gopnik, and Joseph Mitchell. Or similarity in the art of Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams, Roz Chast, George Price, Gretchen Dow Simpson, and George Booth.
A few years ago, in the Introduction to Curious World, a collection of some of my New Yorker pieces, I put down a few recollections of sessions with Ross in his office, and I think they are relevant here: "His questions were deeply penetrating. 'Facts,' he would say, 'give me the facts.' Detail fascinated him. The human comedy fascinated him. From time to time, looking up from the copy on his desk, he would say, 'Never go cosmic on me, Hamburger,' or 'Circulation is rising too fast—a very dangerous business,' or 'Don't expect literary fame—it's like lightning, either it'll strike or it won't.'… 'I saw your wife on the street today … For Christ sake, she's pregnant. You have one child already, where in hell you going to put the next one? Writers! I called your landlord, and I think he'll give you a larger apartment.'" The next day my landlord, Vincent Astor, did call, offering larger space.
There was a familial sense to the place. During World War II, the "Letter from London" was written by Mollie Panter-Downes, who became in the minds of many of the staff a sort of Mrs. Miniver, a symbol of indomitable Great Britain. Neither Ross nor William Shawn, his de facto managing editor (titles were frowned upon), had ever met her, but a number of us, traveling either during or just after the War, had the pleasure of knowing her in London or Haslemere, Surrey, where she lives. Soon after the War she announced that she would visit New York. Ross felt this called for high ceremony. He stationed Clifford Orr, a brilliant, waspish writer (now, like so many others, lost to the past) on the roof of the office at 25 West 43rd Street to keep a lookout down the Hudson for the first glimpse of her steamer, heading upriver. "She's coming! She's coming!" Orr shouted down to those who knew her, and off went the group, pell-mell, to greet the incoming heroine at the pier.
The word "profile" as a form of biography seems to have gone into the language. Even if the sketch of a personality consists of one paragraph, practically every publication calls it a profile. The New Yorker spells it with a capital P. Profiles are a special form, initiated under Ross, and many a current biographer addicted to thousand-page, hernia-inducing tomes, could do worse than examine the succinctness, cutting edge and character-revealing aspects of most of them. Ross paid special attention, not meeting these writers face to face but flooding them with myriad queries. One night in 1949, as a Profile by me of Dean Acheson, then Secretary of State, was about to go to press there was a sudden knock on the door of my office, followed by a blast of air as a disturbed Ross burst in. "I'm told you haven't showed proofs to Acheson," he said. "Good God! There's a Cold War! Suppose we're saying something.…" I interrupted to say that I never showed proofs, didn't think we needed to, but if it would put his mind at rest I would call Acheson at home and put the question to him. I did, and the Secretary said, "Certainly not. I'll read it when it comes out. I trust the New Yorker."
Ross had a naïve, almost child-like quality. I recall that when I visited the rubble of the Third Reich, at Berchtesgaden (having been sent overseas by Ross and Shawn), I spied on the floor of Hitler's massive, picture-windowed meeting room a heavily engraved calling card, just lying there in the midst of the debris. I scooped it up. It was the calling card of Herr Hermann Wolfgang Goering. I brought it back to Ross. His delight in this gift was touching; you might have thought I had given him a complete set of Lionel trains. He promptly framed the card and hung it on the wall in his office.
Ross and Shawn worked closely together for many years. The contrast in personalities was dramatic: Ross always audible, direct to the point of bluntness, Shawn shy, soft spoken, exceedingly polite. But when it came to editorial integrity and vision and a passion to honestly reflect the world in which they lived, these men were spiritual twins. And by no means incidentally, they worked harder than any two I have ever known. The New Yorker became their lives.
After Shawn took over, in 1952, he broadened and deepened the magazine. He reached out to writers everywhere. No idea seemed alien to this man, and a writer presenting one for a possible piece would find that Shawn not only grasped it with the speed of light, he had already formed in his mind the editorial shape it would take. His magazine powerfully defended the environment, eloquently condemned bias and hatred, and made clear to readers that the proliferation of atomic weapons was suicidal.
I find it hard to write about Shawn, for in addition to being my editor for many years, he has been a close friend. These days, the press continually refers to him as "legendary."
That is true enough, yet sad, since it implies an artifact in a glass case. Shawn was an inspiring editor. He gave me a free hand to travel the United States, and I turned out some 58 pieces for him under the rubric "Notes for a Gazetteer," visits to middle-sized American cities, picked at random. He never suggested a city, and never turned one down. I received only one editorial directive: All the pieces were to be written in the third person. No "I" was to appear anywhere in the text. I was to be an objective, outside visitor. "You'll find the form yourself," he said quietly.
Gazetteers bring me to Raoul Fleischmann, the publisher of the magazine at the time, and a man who passionately believed in the separation of church and state: i.e. editorial and business. One of my chance travels took me to Wilmington, Delaware (Alt. 255 ft., Pop. 110,356), and in the course of the piece I dreamed up an imaginary gathering of high-powered Du Pont executives, whooping it up at the Du Pont Country Club, which flies a nylon flag. I invented some characters who might pose there for a group photograph, mixing real people like Henry Francis du Pont with Orlon M.B. du Pont, and Lammot du Pont Copeland with Teflon du Pont. Shortly after the piece appeared Fleischmann asked me to stop by his office, one floor above and several hundred miles from Editorial.
When I walked in, he handed me a letter, and with his usual Old World courtesy said, "Mon Vieux, read this." It was a communication from a mighty vice president of Du Pont, that began, "Dear Raoul, You will recall, old chap, the days we played golf together on the Island," and called for the summary dismissal of the rude correspondent who had so defiled the Du Pont name. "What are you going to do about it?" I asked Fleischmann. "F—it!" he said, tossing it in his waste basket.
And then came Gottlieb. He arrived under dauntingly difficult conditions: There were protests, petitions, much hubbub. He handled himself with awesome grace. Although he, too, reached out to new writers, no cataclysmic changes occurred. He had respect for the traditions of the magazine. He kept "Notes and Comment" on a high plane, paying close note to human rights and the rule of law, and commenting forcefully on political sleaze and hypocrisy in high places. He didn't shrink from the dreaded L word.
Gottlieb was a completely hands-on editor who bustled about from office to office at all hours. He always kept his door open, and the sight of him banging away at his Olympia upright typewriter was comforting to staff members passing by. He made the wise decision to transfer many of the New Yorker archives to the New York Public Library, and supervised the move. The collection will be available in perpetuity to scholars and others studying the literature of the 20th century.
I liked Gottlieb's easy, informal, accessible way, his humor, and the swiftness with which he would read a piece and get back to the writer. I also appreciated his response when presented with an editorial idea that pleased him. "Go for it!" he would say.
Not a bad idea.
SOURCE: "The New Yorker, Old and New," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 676-85.
[Donaldson is an American critic and educator who has written several studies of twentieth-century American literary figures, including Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever. In the following excerpt from a review of several books about the New Yorker, Donaldson examines changes in the magazine's content and editorial policies over the years.]
The dust jacket of Here at The New Yorker, with its cartoon gallery of thirty-six of the magazine's present and past luminaries, promises much the sort of anecdotal reminiscence that Brendan Gill delivers within. But there is only one cartoon of Gill himself, which hardly suggests how ponderously he bulks in his own version of the New Yorker's history. To some extent this is inevitable, for Gill is after all a survivor, having labored among the cubicles on West 43rd Street since 1936, and over that space of time having, as he disingenuously confesses, written more words published in the magazine than anyone else alive or dead. For all that, readers may learn more about Gill and his bitchiness than they care to know, for his strategy in the book is to ingratiate himself, establish his qualifications, and then lay about him with a blunt axe.
From behind a veneer of modesty Gill reveals that he emerged from a prosperous and literate family, that he triumphed as a prep-school poet, that at college he was tapped for Skull and Bones (a name "held in awe, and not at Yale alone"), that he wrote a damnably good if widely unread novel, that writing is not work but play to him, that he loves parties and enjoys his life, and that he considers Wallace Stevens a greater poet than Robert Frost (apparently because Stevens did not resort to "an unseemly scrambling to attain a place at the top of the steeple" and was altogether nicer and more respectable).
A similar bias against the unseemly seems to lie at the root of the malice with which Gill attacks Harold Ross. Ross, who founded the magazine and edited it from its inception in 1925 until his death in 1951, has since been the subject of three books, including James Thurber's bittersweet and moving The Years with Ross. The most striking thing about the editor, all critics agree, was the contrast between his rough-hewn appearance and gutter language and the sophistication and polish of the magazine that he built to such indisputable eminence. For that accomplishment, however, Gill allows him very little credit indeed. Ross was more lucky than good. As a young reporter he had been "conspicuously raffish and incompetent." As an editor his aggressive ignorance led him to pose such classic queries as "Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?" (Jane Grant, who was married to Ross, maintains that he affected such ignorance as a way of intensifying the paradox between the elegant magazine and his own background as a Colorado boy who never went to college.) What's more, according to Gill, Ross's editing consistently disimproved his copy. The editor's sole virtues, in Gill's view, were that he insisted on absolute fidelity to the facts and that the endless stream of queries issuing from his office forced the New Yorker's contributors, through some alchemy, to write better than they knew how.
Gill reserves his most withering comments for his former editor's personal, not professional, failings. Ross, one is told, gambled foolishly, clung to unlovely bigotries, blasphemed continually, and "was a notorious coward." Worst of all, with his gap-toothed "monkey face agape," sloping shoulders, and arms hanging almost to his knees, he offended Gill by looking more like an ape than a man and by behaving accordingly on social occasions. Even in his Fabian Bachrach portrait, according to Gill, Ross stared "into the camera with the air of a small-town crook arrested for having tried to hold up a bank with a water pistol." Unlike Gill he did not love parties, and at weddings or nightclubs he "radiated a continuous intensity of unease." The poor chap simply had no manners at all. Once, in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, Ross pelted the Gills' table with spitballs; belatedly, and with heavier firepower, Gill has returned the barrage.
Here at The New Yorker, it should be admitted, has at least one hero besides its author, and that is William Shawn, the shadowy figure who took over as editor of the magazine in 1951 and still holds the reins. Gill also includes graceful good-natured sketches of several of the New Yorker's artists, including Saul Steinberg, William Steig, and Peter Arno. But those who are his manifest superiors as writers do not fare so well. Toward Edmund Wilson Gill is uneasily respectful; toward Stanley Edgar Hyman, gently condescending; toward John O'Hara and Thurber, openly nasty. These two are pilloried through apostrophe ("Oh, but John O'Hara was a difficult man!") and apposition ("Thurber, that malicious man" and "Thurber, that incomparable mischief-maker"). Gill fell out with both of them after Thurber, practicing one of his frequent—and frequently cruel—practical jokes, persuaded O'Hara that Gill's unfavorable review of A Rage to Live (for most of his career on the New Yorker, Gill has been a reviewer of books, films, or plays) had really been written by Wolcott Gibbs. It is not entirely clear why Thurber should have insisted on this falsehood, except that, as Gill puts it, it was in his nature "to wish to inflict pain," or why O'Hara should have swallowed the misinformation whole, except that he was forever suffering, in Gill's phrase, from "fancied slights." In any event the incident had the effect of cooling whatever potential friendships may have developed between Gill and either of those two masters of short fiction, though once Gill relented long enough to take his son Michael, a Thurber devotee, around to the Algonquin where they both listened as the "old, blind, witty, dying cockatoo" talked a blue streak at them.
There is another explanation for Gill's antipathy toward such illustrious figures as Ross, Thurber, and O'Hara: for all his longevity on the New Yorker, Gill has not until recently ranked as one of the magazine's insiders. Dale Kramer in Ross and The New Yorker (1951) mentions Gill but once. Jane Grant's Ross, The New Yorker, and Me (1968) contains no reference to him at all, and neither does Burton Bernstein's detailed and thorough Thurber, published in 1975. Only half a dozen times in fifteen years, Gill admits, did he and Ross lunch together; "given the difference in our temperaments," he explains, "there was no likelihood that I would be one of Ross's buddies." No, nor one of O'Hara's or Thurber's or even E. B. White's, who shared an office with Thurber and, Gill thinks, taught him practically everything about writing.…
Though the New Yorker is far from dead—indeed, it may be a more important national periodical now than ever before—it too has become decidedly less humorous in its advancing age. Brendan Gill returns time and again to invidious comparisons between the shaggy Ross and the elegant Shawn, contrasting the former's nicotine-stained fingers, for example, with their nails "grossly rimmed with dirt," to the latter's large, well-kept pianist's hands. But he takes no account of a more important distinction suggested by Shawn's own assessment of his predecessor. Ross, his successor wrote, served as the magazine's "final authority on humor. His element was humor. He generated it, he sought it out, he needed it, and he lived by it. If he thought something was funny, it was funny." When Ross died, almost exactly at the midpoint of the New Yorker's fifty years, it began to miss that sure sense of the comic which, up to 1951, had been the magazine's trademark and its glory.
In the beginning Ross had modelled his fledgling magazine after Punch. Like its model it ran cartoons and illustrations but placed primary emphasis on text. The format of the text betrayed further influences: the New Yorker's typographical restraint, its front-running "Talk of the Town" (a straight steal from Punch's "Charivari" of London gossip), its short-fiction pieces (still called "casuals" after the British style), and its character sketches or "profiles" are all directly traceable to its famous and long-lived English progenitor. Ross mixed into the pot his own obsessions with accuracy and readability. A perfectionist, he established a checking department and sought each week to produce a technically flawless issue. He insisted, too, on excision of all highfalutin language and elimination of all possible confusions in the copy which crossed his desk—and everything crossed his desk then just as everything crosses Shawn's now. Moreover he had the gift of attracting brilliant talents to work at his side, most notably White and Thurber; and with their aid he began to reshape the New Yorker's humor into something quite different from that published across the Atlantic.
Punch's forte has always been wit of a satiric bent. But the developing New Yorker, especially the sketches of White and Thurber, fashioned a gentler, tenderer humor. One of White's earliest contributions … illustrates the distinction. A waitress at a Child's restaurant clumsily spilled a full glass of buttermilk over his new suit, and in her distress uttered an abject "In the name of God," began to sob, and fled to the kitchen. "The waitress came trotting back," to let White tell his own story, "full of cool soft tears and hot rough towels. She was a nice little girl, so I let her blot me. In my ear she whispered a million apologies, hopelessly garbled, infinitely forlorn. And I whispered back that the suit was four years old, and that I hated dark clothes anyway. One has, in life, so few chances to lie heroically." In this short piece White laughs at no one's expense, and he even enlists our sympathy on behalf of the hapless waitress. Thurber accomplished much the same effect in depicting the funny but touching misadventures of his bumbling Little Man. Though the New Yorker has never entirely abandoned satire, it achieved its finest moments in pieces like these, where wit gave way to humor, the barb to the benediction.
In 1965 the irreverent Tom Wolfe published an acid dissection of the New Yorker in the rival New York, then the Sunday Herald Tribune magazine. Wolfe excoriated Shawn for his aversion to personal publicity and subjected him and his publication to a vicious ad hominem attack. Though the New Yorker's reputation had prospered until, according to Wolfe, it had "become—new honors!—the most successful suburban woman's magazine in the country," it had actually deteriorated and "mummified" because of Shawn's insistence, as "the smiling embalmer," on changing nothing about Harold Ross's creation. Wolfe's attack was not only cruel but quite wrong, for the New Yorker in 1965 resembled the one of 1950 more in appearance than in reality, and the changes are still more pronounced ten years later. The New Yorker has become more serious and much wordier. Where Ross generated humor and attracted its practitioners, Shawn's gift is for locating talented "fact" writers and giving them their head. As his latest book demonstrates, Sid Perelman is still occasionally doing his business at the old stand, making his marvelous lists (his impressions of India encompass "the quaint customs, the colorful temples, the succulent food buzzing with flies, and the deep wisdom that we in the West could learn from their philosophy"), inventing his wonderful names ("Mr. Fleischkopf, who had wisely refrained from Anglicizing his name to Meathead," the yummy Chinese Candide Yam, the stockbroker Worthington Toushay), striking mock-heroic poses as lover and fighter ("the rogue's impertinence tempted me to box his ears, but since they were obscured by a luxuriant growth of hair, I had no time to hunt for them"), and poking extravagant fun at the booboisie (a Yahoo asks him as a writer to discuss the relative merits of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins, provoking the answer: "Gosh, who can say? It's like trying to compare Balzac with Tolstoy. I mean, they're two colossi"). But Perelman's comedy is basically logomachic, and no true humorists have come along (not even the clever Donald Barthelme nor the super-hip Woody Allen) to replace the long-dead Thurber and the semiretired White.
Instead the New Yorker under Shawn has vastly intensified its capacity for indignation and its eagerness to express itself on national and international issues. Shawn not only published all of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for example, but found in John McPhee an amazingly readable interpreter of the natural environment. Similarly the New Yorker not only printed all of John Hersey's Hiroshima and inveighed early and often in Notes and Comments against the war in Vietnam; but in Jonathan Schell, whose long series on the Nixon administration ran this past summer, and in Richard Harris, author of the terrifying If You Love Your Guns, the magazine has added to its staff two of the nation's most incisive reporters of the political scene. New Yorker fiction does not seem quite so good now as twenty years ago, but both Calvin Trilin and Michael J. Arlen have recently published affecting literary portraits from the twenties, Trillin's on Gerald and Sara Murphy, Arlen on his father.
On the basis of Levels of the Game, the best book about tennis since William T. Tilden's Match Play and the Spin of the Ball forty years ago, and the brilliant articles in his new Pieces of the Frame (there's a fine one on Wimbledon, and a stunner on an animal lover and her travels in Georgia) the prolific McPhee qualifies as the best of the impressive stable that Shawn has recruited, nearly all of whom have been carefully ignored by Gill. Still the New Yorker is not nearly so much fun to read as it used to be, and nostalgia for those good old days probably has a lot to do with the commercial success of Gill's book. In 1960 the New York Times described the New Yorker as "the best literary magazine in the English-speaking world, big or little." If that's true, and many readers would agree that it still is, it says a good deal about the present perilous state, in that world, of both fiction and, especially, humor.
SOURCE: "The New Yorker's Golden Age," in The New Republic, Vol. 140, No. 26, June 29, 1959, pp. 19-20.
[In the following review of James Thurber's The Years with Ross, Salmon reflects on what he considers the "golden age" of the New Yorker.]
An over-zealous younger editor of The New Yorker could, if he tried, find material for at least half a dozen of that magazine's "Newsbreaks" in James Thurber's The Years With Ross. There are obvious candidates for the "Forgetful Authors" Department and others that could be twisted into one of the "Infatuation With the Sound of" Series. And one shudders to think what the current crop of the magazine's book reviewers could say about Thurber's organization, which has all of the faults that are frequently to be found in a book that derives from a series of articles originating in a magazine—in this case in The Atlantic. Such a reviewer, moreover, could legitimately argue that the book never really explains what it was that made Ross a great editor.
In any event, I am confident that not even the most self-righteous purist could take serious notice of any of the faults. For the faults are those of genius and The Years With Ross is quite simply, if may use an over-worked phrase, a great book. It should win the Pulitzer Prize for biography; a National Book Award (in fiction, nonfiction or poetry: it qualities in all three categories), and anyone with contacts in Stockholm should notify the Swedish Academicians that now is the time for all of Thurber's work to be accorded the Nobel Prize it deserves.
The Years With Ross is an illuminating portrait of its subject, its author, and that American institution, the magazine they both served. One of the most interesting things about the book is that, directly or indirectly, it asks more questions than it answers; and one of these questions is: Now that we have read about The New Yorker in the days of its greatness, what about the magazine today?; while we still take it, we have come to take it for granted.
As one reads The Years With Ross, the conclusion cannot be escaped that Thurber has his own worries about this problem. Speaking of John Mosher, who once rejected a story because it was "a tedious bit about an adolescent female," Thurber remarks: "I sometimes wonder what Mosher would say, if he were alive now, about The New Yorker's flux of stories by women writers dealing with the infancy, childhood, and young womanhood of females. 'We are in a velvet rut,' Ross once said many years ago." More and more of today's stories fit this pattern, a pattern which comes out of the old Delineator rather than the old New Yorker.
Reading later in the book how Ross "gave up slowly and reluctantly his old original belief that the weekly ought to be confined to the scenes and peoples and goings on" in New York City, one wonders what he would think of the endless stream of stories set in South Africa, India, England and even (pace Frank O'Connor) Ireland. The New Yorker's fiction department remains the last stronghold of the British Empire. You may or may not agree that there are no new good fiction writers in this country but the fact remains that the significant younger American writers seldom appear in The New Yorker today. John Updike, of course, is an exception to this generalization, and maybe he is enough for the magazine to keep its franchise, but I doubt if Ross would have agreed. And before somebody brings up Salinger, let me hasten to point out that he got his start in the days of Ross.
It is true that the level of the magazine's nonfiction has remained fairly high. In addition to the consistently good foreign reporting, there are the regular contributions of such stalwarts as John Brooks and Berton Roueche. But we read much of their smooth work out of habit and a nagging sense of duty, before turning elsewhere for more real provocation to thought. As for the "Profiles" (a word invented by Ross), there has been a definite deterioration, best exemplified by Geoffrey Hellman's recent job on Bennett Cerf as compared to Wolcott Gibbs' earlier, annihilating profile of Henry Luce.
In the departments of criticism the magazine's record is more uneven. John Lardner's Television reviews are probably among the best available in a field that offers little competition. With the arrival of Kenneth Tynan and Donald Malcolm as drama critics, the pages of that department are the most stimulating to be found in the magazine. On the other hand, the regular book reviewers do not sustain the former critical standards, grace of writing and authority.
A friend of mine recently commented that twenty years ago he would have had called to his attention, either angrily or enthusiastically, two or three things in every issue; ten years later the average had dropped to one a week; currently, months can go by without anyone's mentioning The New Yorker to him. Years ago, he said, he had given up the old weekly ritual of reading the magazine from cover to cover. On the other hand, I know from firsthand experience that today's undergraduates, in the Eastern colleges, at least, are regular and devoted readers. It may be that there is a limit to the number of years during which one may remain faithful to a magazine as stylized as this one. To those whose ardor for The New Yorker has dimmed with the passage of time, I recommend a reading of The Years With Ross. In its pages are to be found anew all of the old excitement and glory.
SOURCE: "Tilley the Toiler: A Profile of the New Yorker Magazine," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 34, August 30, 1947, pp. 7-10, 29-32.
[In the following excerpt, Maloney discusses "legends" concerning various personalities and practices associated with the New Yorker.]
This article is the work of a man who spent just under eleven years on the staff of The New Yorker magazine, wrote two million words for it, more or less, went through five hundred and seventy-odd weekly deadlines, and resigned at last because he felt rather middle-aged and pooped.
Once a year, on the anniversary of the first issue of The New Yorker, there appears on its cover a portrait by Rea Irvin, the magazine's first art editor, of the mythical character known around the office as Eustace Tilley. Tilley, who is represented as scrutinizing a butterfly through a single eyeglass, is a supercilious fellow dressed in the height of Regency foppishness, complete with beaver hat and high stock. He is the embodiment of The New Yorker legend, which is surely the most voluminous body of fact, fiction, and conjecture ever attached to any enterprise, let alone the relatively simple one of publishing a twenty-cent weekly magazine.
Next February Tilley will make his twenty-third appearance on The New Yorker's cover. His survival is symbolic of the fact that the editorial staff has always worked as hard at being legendary as at the routine chores of writing and editing. The faithful subscriber, who follows the gossip columns and reads the pieces about The New Yorker that have appeared occasionally in other periodicals, can recite all the classic New Yorker stories in detail: for instance, Thurber tipping over the telephone booth in the reception room, powdering his face, lying down in the booth, and pretending to be a corpse; or the card-index system, keyed to a series of colored tabs, which was prepared for the benefit of a new managing editor who turned out to be color-blind.
Aside from the legend, the actual accomplishments of the actual New Yorker magazine are impressive. The current idiom of American humor derives directly from The New Yorker. The illustrated he-and-she joke, which was once sold in quantities to the readers of Judge and the old pre-Luce Life, has been replaced by the one-line cartoon gag, in which picture and text are equally important. Further, these pictures are based on real current events or observation of human character, and not on the hack humorist's dreary world, in which Dusty Rhodes, the tramp, knocks on the door and asks for a piece of pie, in which Little Willie tearfully rebels against his Saturday night bath, or plays hookey from the little red schoolhouse to go fishin' with a bent pin.
To the generally barren field of day-to-day journalism, The New Yorker brought a fresh style and enthusiasm. The mannered but severely accurate Talk of the Town reported little happenings unnoticed by the newspapers. Prominent or notorious citizens were the subjects of Profiles—a word that has become part of the language, despite occasional screams from The New Yorker's lawyers about copyright. The Reporter at Large series gave scope to writers with a story too big to be handled in Talk. Talk very soon in The New Yorker's career was taken over by James Thurber and E. B. White. By ordinary city-editor standards, both were very bad reporters, and they had actually proved this by working on newspapers—White in Seattle and Thurber in New York. Their contribution to Talk, however, did much to revive the moribund art form known in city rooms as the feature story. Before long examples of their work were being reprinted in textbooks and were solemnly analyzed by professors of journalism. Reporters on other publications were stirred to emulation. Journalism began to look up.
Meanwhile, E. B. White, in the Notes and Comments department, was setting The New Yorker's editorial style—editorial policy would be too strong a term. Comment, through an inspired piece of bad make-up, has always appeared under the Talk of the Town heading, although it is a separate enterprise. Comment occupies the first page, Talk the second, third, fourth, and fifth pages. Except for a five-year hegira, from 1938 to 1942, when he lived on a farm on the Maine coast and contributed a monthly department to Harper's Magazine, White has always been the leading Comment writer, accepting odd thoughts or bits of information from staff men or readers, combining them with his own observations, and blending the whole into a mellow and stylistically impeccable page. Before Hitler became an active menace, The New Yorker's editorial stand, as defined by White, was simple and, theoretically, not impossible to put into action. The New Yorker was on record as being against the use of poisonous spray on fruit, and against the trend in automobile design which narrows the driver's field of vision by lowering the front seat.
Wartime Comment, which was not entirely by White, was not much above the level of other wartime prose; but he has since become a fervent internationalist and has written lyrically and persuasively of his convictions. The tone of the magazine, taking pictures, reporting, criticism, and fiction into account, has been increasingly liberal, pro-New Deal, and internationalist. At any rate, The New Yorker has grown beyond the stature of a funny magazine; there was nothing incongruous in the August 31 issue of this year, which was devoted completely to John Hersey's thirty-thousand word dispatch about the destruction of Hiroshima, later issued in book form.
Inextricably mingled with the story of The New Yorker is the story of Harold Ross, founder and editor. Unfortunately it is a story which nobody is able to tell. No man—no man, that is, if we make an exception of the entire field of theology—has been the subject of so much analysis, interpretation, and explanation, with so little concrete result. For more than twenty-one years he has belched and wrangled and improvised and compromised and given his subscribers a magazine every seven days. He still works hard; except for a few sports columns and foreign newsletters which come in over the week end, he works on every bit of copy that goes into the magazine. He stalks through the dirty corridors of his editorial domain, gaunt, gap-toothed, his black hair tousled and his mouth agape like that of a man who has just established contact with a bad oyster, watching the next issue grow and arguing minute points of fact, taste, punctuation, or policy. He is, arbitrarily and inexplicably, an authority on the migratory habits of eels and the customs of the harem, subjects on which he likes to expatiate for hours, usually to some anxious minion who is trying desperately to make a press deadline. It is not unusual for a writer to work in The New Yorker office for several years without once meeting his editor. The elevator men have strict instructions not to greet him by name, lest he be accosted by some tactless writer or artist in the same car. He is a man of no perceptible learning, and he does not seem to be inordinately impressed by experience. He has relatively few friends and a number of enemies of whom he is, on the whole, rather proud. "A journalist can't afford to have friends," he is fond of saying. In a time when people are vociferous about politics, it is difficult to decide just where he stands; probably he is a lukewarm rightist despite the underlying liberal tone of the magazine itself.
A whole generation of journalists has got into the habit of thinking of Ross as a mystery man, and it suits Ross well enough to have it that way. Actually, there is no more up his sleeve today than there was thirty-odd years ago, when he left Aspen, Colorado, to seek his fortune. It is not a pose when the editor of The New Yorker refers to the local smart set as "dudes." They are dudes, as far as he's concerned; always will be. Ross's editing might be described as the apotheosis of honest ignorance. All he asks is that a piece of writing be completely comprehensible to him. (He now asks this even of poets. "God damn it!" he suddenly yelled, one day back in 1938, "after this I'm not going to buy any verse I don't understand!") Ross will not pretend he understands something he doesn't understand, nor will he hope that others may be quicker than he. He has no intellectual arrogance, and will happily turn over his valuable magazine to the mismanagement of somebody he has brought in off the street to be managing editor. As soon as the incumbent's incompetence becomes clear, Ross fires him—a process that takes anywhere between one and two years, the editor meanwhile continuing at full salary while his responsibilities are gradually whittled down. Ross would rather hire than fire, with the result that his editorial roster today is near a hundred, or twice what it was ten years ago. His effect on The New Yorker, so far as taste, policy, and other intangibles are concerned, is mainly negative. He has harnessed some of the nation's most fractious wits. The New Yorker's quarrel with Woollcott, for instance, resulted simply from Ross's refusal to let Woollcott devote his polished style to the narration of smoking-car stories, and old ones at that.
Next to Ross, Thurber and White have most deeply impressed their personalities on the magazine. Thurber, because of increasingly severe eye trouble, has not been very active at The New Yorker for the past six or seven years, but he has left a permanent impression—a little private Thurber legend, you might say, preserved within The New Yorker legend. Before he appeared on the literary scene, magazine writers were not regarded as terribly glamorous figures. They were the sort of men who took pepsin tablets after lunch and wore rubbers on cloudy days. Thurber brought the neuroses to English prose. A tall, thin, spectacled man with the face of a harassed rat, Thurber managed to convey to his office associates something of his own sense of impending doom.
In E. B. White's phrase, Thurber in those days trailed a thin melancholy after him. It was catching, too. Any humorist—for that matter, any subjective writer—is a potential neurotic. In the Gothic atmosphere which Thurber established at The New Yorker, the potential was actualized. One after the other, a string of slapdash newspaper writers hired by Ross in the hope that they could dash off a few profiles or Reporter at Large pieces were turned, before his very eyes, into Byronic figures who could barely summon the energy once a week to grope their way down the block to the Guaranty Trust Company and cash their drawing-account checks. It even became the thing, for a time, to be voluntarily institutionalized, and new managing editors would solemnize their promotion with a nervous breakdown.
One of E. B. White's great contributions to The New Yorker was his insistence, against almost overwhelming opposition, that Thurber was a funny artist whose pictures should appear in the magazine. Not even Thurber thought this; but White collected his random doodlings from his waste-basket, inked over the penciled lines, submitted the pictures to the art editor, and finally had his way. Probably more people think of Thurber as an artist than as a writer, though Thurber himself has always said he puts writing first. White, in the same defiant way, is inclined to pooh-pooh his taut and wonderful prose; he likes to think he's a poet, a title for which he is disqualified by his inordinate fondness for the word "doth."
White's Comment paragraphs can hardly be called inimitable, since they have been successfully forged by lesser staff members. Nevertheless he was the inventor, and is still the surest practitioner of this style, which is modest, sly, elliptical, allusive, prim, slightly countrified, wistful, and (God help us) whimsical. And if White's style can be forged, the New York of which he writes remains his own property. It is a microcosm with fewer orange peels and bloodstains than its original; White regards it fondly, like a spinster looking at her tank of guppies. Slight and nervous, modestly dressed and undistinguished in feature, White is a triumph of big-city protective coloration. He is never seen at cocktail parties, though he goes to one now and then.
There is an editor in the White household, too. She was Katherine Angell when, in the Twenties, she went to work editing fiction and poetry. When she and White were married, they established the first New Yorker dynasty: young Roger Angell, Mrs. White's son by an earlier marriage, has already sold his first piece to the magazine. Though the week-to-week drudgery of buying and printing poetry and short stories has been delegated to others, Mrs. White descends on the office every now and then for a brisk bout of editorial housecleaning.
Wolcott Gibbs, who will thank you to pronounce his first name "Woollcott," must be mentioned among the founders of The New Yorker legend. Alice Duer Miller, his aunt, was a close friend of Ross, and her efforts on his behalf landed Gibbs at The New Yorker. His first printed contribution was a sparkling verse parody titled "I Have A Rendezvous with Debt" and, in the fine old phrase, he has never looked back. He soon proved that any ambitious young man could become an acceptable amalgam of Thurber and White. In fact, during White's unadvertised absences from the Comment job, the principal contributor has been Gibbs; and most of his essays—The New Yorker staff calls them "casuals"—have been in the Thurber vein of the superior and highstrung man frightened by a piece of machinery or a woman. Under the tutelage of Mrs. White he became an excellent editor, his talent for parody enabling him to handle copy without violating the author's style. Gibbs gave up editing when he became the play reviewer.
Ross seldom talks about the early days of The New Yorker, and positively refuses to look at the early issues, the ones that came out in 1925-6. None of his present staff was with him then. Contributors were recruited from the Algonquin "round table" set, the lunchtime wits—Marc Connelly, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George Kaufman, and their lesser friends. They worked for all but nothing, presumably spurred on by the new magazine's slogan. "Not for the old lady from Dubuque." This touch of Greenwich Village defiance was quietly buried after a few years, and Ross would undoubtedly be happy to have it forgotten. It was this period that saw the birth of The New Yorker legend; the organized effort that was to produce the present-day New Yorker began later.
A fact about The New Yorker which is not part of The New Yorker legend is that the job of editor or staff writer is physically debilitating, mentally exhausting, and a form of social suicide.
There are not titles at The New Yorker except in the business department. The most definite statement possible about the staff is that the excellence of most New Yorker prose is due partly to the fact that it passes through the hands of men named Shawn, Vanderbilt, Maxwell, Lobrano, Whitaker, Packard, and Weekes, none of whom have any definite titles and few of whom are known to the public.
There are several factors that make an editorial job at The New Yorker a more desperate affair than another editorial job. The worst, of course, is the glum fact of The New Yorker's perfection; because perfection, in the mind of Harold Ross, is not a goal or an ideal, but something that belongs to him, like his watch or his hat.
Another factor that makes editing The New Yorker something of a nightmare is the number and variety of items in each issue. There are Comment and Talk paragraphs, pictures, poems, short stories, essays, a Profile or Reporter at Large, half a dozen critical departments, a dozen or so newsbreaks, and the Goings-On Department, which covers movies, plays, restaurants, and night clubs. Talk is made up according to a loose but inevitable formula requiring four short anecdotes at least, and a selection of four long stories including one "dope" story, one personality story, and if possible a "visit" or personally reported story by a Talk rewrite man. Talk must be made up so that there are no conflicts with other items in the issue: that is, no mentions of subjects mentioned elsewhere in the magazine. Thus, if one of the Talk personality stories is about a dog-breeder who took a prize at the Westminster Kennel Club show, there must be no dogs in other Talk stories, nor in any of the drawings, short stories, or essays as well. Newsbreaks, poems, and other fillers—even the tiny spot drawings used as type ornaments—are scrutinized until the last press deadline, for fear of possible conflicts.
The third factor which produces a good magazine once a week and keeps editorial nerves on the stretch is an insane complexity of action. The trend is always away from simplicity. Twenty years ago a man-about-town named Fillmore Hyde used to come in and write three thousand words of Talk on Thursday afternoon. Lately, Talk has been taking up the entire working week of four reporters. The breezy titles of the various factual departments—Profiles and A Reporter at Large, as well as Talk of the Town, are merely memories of days when The New Yorker took life and journalism much less seriously than at present. A Profile, for instance, could be reported and written in a couple of days, once upon a time; the intention then was merely to present an offhand impression of the subject, literally a profile. Nowadays it is not unusual for a writer to spend three months gathering his material, a month writing the Profile, and another month answering queries and preparing the piece for the press. Ross is no longer content with a profile; he requests also a family history, bank reference, social security number, urinalysis, catalogue of household possessions, names of all living relatives, business connections, political affiliations, as well as a profile. The pieces have expanded enormously; there are numerous two-part profiles, some three-part ones, and now and then a five-part one, such as McKelway's painstaking dissection of Walter Winchell and John Bainbridge's study of The Reader's Digest. Back in 1926 The New Yorker would probably have had some pretty caustic things to say about a publication which printed a twenty-five-thousand word biographical study and called it a profile.
Some amateur statistician at the magazine recently estimated that if every staff writer contributed only one piece every six months, there would be a sufficient supply of Talk, Profiles, Reporters, and other fact pieces. The New Yorker is prodigal with drawing accounts. The indebtedness of departing writers is usually carried in the books, the fiction being that he will return some day, write seven or eight Profiles, and clear his account. Nobody, staff writer or free lance, is ever commissioned to do a piece—that is, given an assignment with a guarantee of payment.
Fiction and poetry being almost but impossible to regiment, The New Yorker handles such contributions pretty normally. By and large, it is no harder to write a New Yorker short story now than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. Sally Benson once sent in a story about some adventure or other that happened to a man who lived in a cabin on a mountainside. Her author's proof included a fretful Ross query: "How he come to be living on mountainside? Better explain." Miss Benson penciled an answer: "I don't know how he came to be living on a mountainside. This is just a story I made up, and I didn't make up that part."
"Art meeting" is one of the great New Yorker institutions: the process, hardly changed by the passage of the years, by which the drawings are bought. It has always been attended by Ross and Rea Irvin, the first art editor. The current art editor attends; so does one of the fiction editors; Mrs. White does if she is in town. These people sit four abreast at a conference table, while the pictures, one after another, are laid on an easel in front of them. At each place is a pad, pencil, ashtray, and knitting needle. The knitting needle is for pointing at faulty details in pictures. Ross rejects pictures firmly and rapidly, perhaps one every ten seconds. "Nah … nah … nah." A really bad picture wrings from him the exclamation "Buckwheat!"—a practical compromise between the violence of his feelings and the restraint he feels in the presence of Mrs. White or a lady secretary. "Who's talking?" he will ask occasionally; this means that the drawing will get sent back to the artist, to have the speaker's mouth opened wider. Now and then Ross gets lost in the intricacies of perspective. "Where am I supposed to be?"...
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