75 years of painting the town readThe journalist Richard Rovere once said of Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker magazine, that his fundamental contribution to journalism was his fight for the dignity of the printed word.
Read in the context of our own day, when the relentless trivialization of journalism has the dignity of the printed word pretty much down for the count, Rovere's statement rings with bitter piquancy. All the more so when you consider that the fight wasn't nearly so desperate in Ross's time: that brief window when an erudite little Ôcomic paper,' as Thomas Kunkel said in his biography of Ross five years ago, could be a major cultural force in a way that is unthinkable now. That brief window has long been closed, which is one of the assessments made by Ben Yagoda in About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, $27.50, 0684816059), one of a small flurry of books being published to mark this month's 75th anniversary of the magazine. I have a shelf of books about the New Yorker, from James Thurber's The Years with Ross of 1958 to Ved Mehta's paean to William Shawn, Ross's successor, of 40 years later, and About Town is one I am happy to add to it. It is probably longer than it needs to be, but New Yorker fans eager to absorb every fact, and every opinion about every fact, of the magazine's history will not find length a defect.
Most of the books on that shelf are biographies or autobiographies or reminiscences. Yagoda has produced something different: a critical and cultural history that looks at the magazine's content, how it originated and how it evolved, and at the role the magazine has played in American cultural life for three-quarters of a century. His book is the first to be based in large part on the New Yorker archives recently made available by the New York Public Library, which are amazingly voluminous. Imagine coming across a 1949 letter written to the editors by a totally obscure 17-year-old named John Updike.
Like Kunkel and others who have written about the New Yorker, Yagoda gives chief credit for its success in its first two decades to that improbable genius, Ross, and his finicky concern for the clarity of the printed word. Ross's genius also lay in choosing excellent founding writers and editors, particularly that triumvirate of Thurber, E.B White, and Katherine Angell (later White's wife). Other blocks in the foundation, according to Yagoda, were that nebulous concept, sophistication ; the focus on New York; the concern with shifting class lines; and, perhaps most important, the cartoons and other art.
In great detail, About Town describes the development of such elements as the Profile and the New Yorker short story and how they have changed. As to the latter, there is somewhat of a paradox. Though Yagoda rightly points out that the magazine's intense reluctance to stretch has restricted its short-story range, the cumulative effect is of an illustrious fiction record overall.
The author believes the magazine had its golden age in the decade preceding Pearl Harbor a time in its history when it was poised gracefully between the formless and sometimes brittle levity that came before and the unquestionably meritorious, occasionally splendid, but frequently solemn, ponderous, self-important, or dull magazine that stretched from the Second World War on up to the 1980s. He also sees another brief golden age in the 1970s, when it got over solemnizing about the Vietnam War.
So, though he doesn't use Kunkel's notion of a brief window of cultural influence that I cited above, Yagoda clearly agrees with it. Aside from a short epilogue taking the magazine up to the present, he ends the book proper in 1987, when Shawn was let go. With that act, the slowly closing window banged shut, and the magazine's story as a unique and influential institution in our culture ended.
In the first 62 years of its existence, the New Yorker had two visionary editors and was a thing unto itself. In the last 13 it has had three interchangeable editors and grows ever more indistinguishable from Vanity Fair and the rest of that glossy, celebrity-hunting crowd. To those of us who remain fans it is still the best of the lot, but think what that says about how sorry the lot has become. To be fair, think what it says about cultures getting the institutions they deserve.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.