About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Madeby Ben Yagoda
For more than seven decades, the New Yorker has been the embodiment of urban sophistication and literary accomplishment, the magazine where the best work of virtually every prose giant of the century first appeared. With all the authority and elegance such a subject demands, Yagoda tells the fascinating story of the tiny journal that grew into a literary/i>
For more than seven decades, the New Yorker has been the embodiment of urban sophistication and literary accomplishment, the magazine where the best work of virtually every prose giant of the century first appeared. With all the authority and elegance such a subject demands, Yagoda tells the fascinating story of the tiny journal that grew into a literary enterprise of epic proportions. Incorporating interviews with more than fifty former and current New Yorker writers, including the late Joseph Mitchell, Roger Angell, the late Pauline Kael, Calvin Trillin, and Ann Beattie, Yagoda is the first author to make extensive use of the New Yorker's archives. About Town penetrates the inner workings of the New Yorker as no other book has done, opening a window on a lost age.
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About TownThe New Yorker and the World It Made
By Ben Yagoda
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2001 Ben Yagoda
All right reserved.
Our Far-Flung Correspondence
Toward the end of World War II, a young American woman named Hannah M. Turner was serving in a Red Cross Clubmobile unit in northern Italy. One evening she was asked to report to one of the medical aid stations, to help with the wounded who were waiting to be evacuated by truck and ambulance to a rear hospital. "Most of the men were not even conscious," Mrs. Turner recalled in a letter she wrote me in 1996,
but I knelt down by one who was, looked at his dog tag to see his name and, holding his hand, I looked at him and said something. I don't remember what. Then he said, "If you could have anything right now, what would it be? I don't mean anything abstract...something physical, something you could put your hands on." And without a second thought, I said, "An issue of the New Yorker magazine." He looked stunned, then he started to laugh and his eyes lit up and I found out he had been a student (Dartmouth, I think) when he enlisted after his brother was killed in the Pacific. But what he really wanted to talk about was the New Yorker. So we reminisced about our favorite cartoons and writers and spent perhaps fifteen minutes in another world, one that was familiar and funny and far, far away from that one.
Hannah Turner was recounting her experience to me because of a one-sentence author's query I had placed in the New York Times Book Review, asking to hear from "longtime readers" of the New Yorker who would be willing to fill out a survey about their relationship with the magazine. I felt there would be a sizable response, but I certainly didn't expect nearly seven hundred cards and letters to come back, saying, as if in unison, "I thought you'd never ask!" Many of the people who replied -- including Mrs. Turner -- didn't want to wait for the survey and put their thoughts and experiences down right away. Seven clusters of questions, most of them open-ended, were sent out to all the respondents. Remarkably, almost half of them took the time and effort to complete the survey, some going on for three or four single-spaced pages.
You couldn't imagine a survey about Mademoiselle, Popular Mechanics, or U.S. News and World Report eliciting this kind of response -- but, then, the New Yorker, since its beginning in 1925, was never like any other magazine. In a review of Brendan Gill's book Here at the New Yorker in the New York Times Book Review in 1975, John Leonard called it "the weekly magazine most educated Americans grew up on." He went on: "Whether we read it or refused to read it -- which depended, of course, on the sort of people we wanted to be -- it was as much a part of our class conditioning as clean fingernails, college, a checking account, and good intentions. For better or worse, it probably created our sense of humor." More than that: the New Yorker did more than any other entity to create "our" sense of what was proper English prose and what was not, what was in good taste and what was not, what was the appropriate attitude to take, in print, toward personal and global happenings. "The New Yorker cartoon" and "the New Yorker short story," meanwhile, transcended mere genres and became cultural categories, the very names implying a specific kind of aesthetic lens on experience.
And more than that: the New Yorker resonates throughout the culture. To understand this, one need look no further than the press coverage given to the abrupt resignation of Tina Brown as editor of the magazine in the summer of 1998. The New Yorker at that point was a weekly magazine that had lost money for thirteen consecutive years, that had a modest circulation of eight-hundred-odd thousand, that (creatively) was awkwardly suspended between the Standards and Ideals of its classic version and the up-to-the-minute cocktail of glitz, hype, and topicality brought in by Brown when she arrived in 1992. Yet the New York Times put the story on the front page -- above the fold; Time magazine devoted six pages to the departure of Brown and her replacement by New Yorker writer David Remnick.
Typography offers a more subtle -- indeed, a by and large subliminal -- sign. The New Yorker's first art director, Rea Irvin, designed a distinctive display type for the magazine that has since then been known by his name. With the widespread adoption of computer typesetting in the 1980s, Irvin type, with minuscule variations, became available to any designer who wanted to suggest, however improbably, a product's upscale urbanity. And so it can be seen, to name just a few examples, in the logos for the television show Frasier; for the department store Bergdorf Goodman; for the Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas; for the cover of Alice Munro's book of short stories The Moons of Jupiter; and for a new model of Cadillac called the Catera. (The Catera went further, using in its ads in the New Yorker and elsewhere a New Yorker boldface body type in addition to the Irvin display type.)
The surveys I got back gave flesh and blood to the notion of the bond between the New Yorker and its readers. Every one of the respondents -- most of whom lived outside the New York metropolitan area -- described a deep connection to the magazine, usually pedagogical and always personal. As one wrote, "What I'm probably trying to say is that I've always felt sort of nourished by the New Yorker, finishing an issue feeling not only entertained (transported in some cases) but enlightened, learning something about a subject that was written by a master of his craft...Hersey, McPhee, Flanner, Angell. A glorious list!" Many made some variation of the statement that life without the New Yorker was unimaginable (and so most of them kept up their subscriptions despite the changes made by Tina Brown, which were disliked by a vast majority). Often, they reported making the symbolic link tangible, through physically holding on to their old New Yorkers, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. A surprising number (12 percent, to be exact) reported taking the further step of using the covers for various artistic or decorative purposes, as if it were important for the New Yorker to be permanently visible in their homes. One woman wrote, "I've framed covers, used as folders whole covers, papered walls and covered chests, boxes, tins, and frames with cut up covers." People said they used New Yorker covers to paper the walls of a bathroom; a stairway; a summer cottage; a utility room; a wall in the guest room; a closet wall; and a closet-turned-wetbar.
They told stories about the New Yorker and themselves, not as dramatic as Hannah Turner's bedside encounter in northern Italy, but vivid nonetheless:
In 192728-ish I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. It was a time when instructors, usually from up East, came through on one-year contracts. I was in a class -- history? -- such a young man was teaching. After one class, he stopped me with a magazine he wanted me to read. I was the only person he'd come across in Knoxville who would like the New Yorker.
Each week I stopped with my quarter at I. Beiler's Smoke Shop for my copy...we were a small group of elite but faithful customers.
In the early days of the New Deal, when the world was young, some of us who were with the Tennessee Valley Authority used to meet at lunch at the S & W cafeteria. At one table we always shared our favorite cartoons of the New Yorker's week.
By the time I was nine (1938) it was my Saturday-night ritual. My sister and I had supper early and I saved the New Yorker to read Saturday nights while my parents had dinner and before I was sent to bed. If it came on Friday I waited until Saturday to open it. When I was ten I went to camp for the first time. There was a camp train out of Grand Central; you met by your camp banner and each camp had its own car or half car. People bought things to read in the station; a lot of the campers bought comic books but I bought the New Yorker.
On what was the most difficult day of my life -- in 1963 -- a just-off-the-stand New Yorker was my companion, on my ride home, by subway and bus from the college I was attending to my home and the saddest news that was to await me. While I didn't know how sad the news was actually to be -- I knew that there were going to be rough times ahead of me -- my New Yorker was my security blanket. What more is there to say?
I was a high school student in Washington, D.C., at the time I started reading it, but my family is originally from New York City (I was born there) and having the New Yorker on hand seemed to reinforce my sense of being, at core, a New Yorker myself. Certainly at 16 I was attracted to the magazine's aura of sophistication and intellectual hipness. I would take my copy to the pool and while other teenage girls lounged around their copies of Seventeen propped up in front of them, absorbed by such articles as how to clear up your complexion or gloss your lips, I sat reading book-length treatises about the war in Vietnam, about the prospect of nuclear winter, about the world of the autistic and schizophrenic (and feeling very adult for doing so).
I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't reading the New Yorker. As a 15-year-old school girl in the Bronx, riding the IRT to Hunter High School, I was swept away by the seductive world it represented, all grace, charm, and sophistication, light-years away from life as I knew it on the Grand Concourse. At Barnard College I preferred the company of other New Yorker readers since their identification with the magazine mirrored mine. Of course, being young and arrogant, I think we missed much of the substance and absorbed only the surface.
I must have started reading the New Yorker when I was 18; I remember subscribing to the magazine in 1943, when I was 19. My uncle had given me $5.00 (a fairly large gift then) with instructions to "buy yourself something you want," and I decided to invest in a subscription. I became addicted and never looked back. I had arrived in this country in 1940 as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and was living in Forest Hills, New York. By day, I worked as a secretary in Manhattan; at night, I was a student at Hunter College. I did a lot of reading on the subway, and remember a half-admiring comment by a colleague or fellow-student who saw me with the New Yorker that it was a "pretty sophisticated magazine."
I was drafted in the Army of the United States on September 12, 1945, two months after graduating from high school and reaching the age of eighteen. A few weeks later I came across my first ever copy of the New Yorker in an Armed Services Edition and have read it ever since. I was attracted to the magazine by the wit of the comments that followed the bloopers in books, magazines, and newspapers, and the cartoons, especially those of George Price.
I had a ritual for attacking this ritualistic magazine. It had no table of contents then either -- just the reverse snobbery of those little bylines preceded by diffident dashes -- and I would plunge in backward, scanning first for the names under the long articles, canvassing the short story credits, and breathlessly surveying the poems.
I did all this in a cold sweat to the thumping accompaniment of my heart. What terrified me was the possibility of finding a story or poem by someone I knew. Someone who had been an idiot in college, or a known nose-picker, or who (in combination with one or both of these things) was younger than me. Even by one or two months.
It was not that I merely read the New Yorker; I lived it in a private way. I had created for myself a New Yorker world (located somewhere east of Westport and west of the Cotswolds) where Peter De Vries (punning softly) 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 (repeating all the while that Nabokov was the best writer of English currently holding American citizenship). Meanwhile, the Indian writers clustered in a corner punjabbering away in Sellerian accents (and giving off a pervasive odor of curry) and the Irish memoirists (in fishermen's sweaters and whiskey breath) were busily snubbing the prissily tweedy English memoirists.
The last, I hasten to disclose, is not a survey response at all, but a passage from Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying, narrated by the main character, Isadora Wing. Jong was writing in the early 1970s about the year 1960 or thereabouts. If an educated audience feels any such vicarious fellowship today, I suppose it would be with the disembodied voices of National Public Radio -- Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards and Daniel Schorr and Bailey White and all the rest. But in the flush times of postWorld War II America, my respondents were telling me, the only cocktail party in town was the New Yorker.
In truth, I already knew this was the case. As I read page after page of this heartfelt testimony, I kept thinking back to my own connection to the magazine. My mother, coming to New York as a "career girl" in the 1940s, seized on the New Yorker as a kind of talisman for Manhattan sophistication. The magazine accompanied her to the suburbs and there grew in stature, into a paragon of English prose, critical acumen, and political judgment. There was no New Yorker wallpaper in our house, but there was my mother's elaborate system of putting check marks on the issues she had begun reading, double checks on the ones she had finished. (My father, a scattershot reader, often made a mess of the system.) She was overjoyed when Pauline Kael sent a signed note in response to a fan letter, and proudly pasted it in the front of one of Kael's books. Like many of the respondents, I couldn't recall a time when New Yorkers weren't around the house, and like them, I started with the cartoons before graduating to the funny little Newsbreaks at the bottom of the columns, the reviews (Kael and Whitney Balliett), the humor pieces (S. J. Perelman, Woody Allen, Ian Frazier), the articles (John McPhee on Bill Bradley, Calvin Trillin on Fats Goldberg, Roger Angell on baseball), and finally the short stories of John Updike, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason. For my birthday one year, my mother gave me two shares of New Yorker stock. But being a part-owner gave me no edge in cracking the magazine. Like some of the people who filled out the surveys, I began collecting my own sheaf of New Yorker rejection notes before concluding that, just as I would never be able to dunk a basketball, I was not destined to sip anything at Isadora's imaginary soiree.
Time passed. In 1985, the privately held Advance Communications (in the person of S. I. Newhouse) took control of the magazine, and I was forced to relinquish my stock. What I recall as a return on investment of about 800 percent helped ease the pain. Two years later, I read the exhaustive news coverage of the awkward dismissal of William Shawn, the editor since 1952, and the arrival of Robert Gottlieb. In 1992, Gottlieb was in turn replaced by Tina Brown, accompanied by more headlines.
One less momentous article appeared in the Times in 1991. It said that the magazine, then moving from one side of West Forty-third Street to the other, was donating its editorial files to the New York Public Library. I clipped that article, and a subsequent one announcing that the New Yorker Records, having been duly classified, cataloged, and dispersed into some twenty-five hundred archival boxes, would be opened to researchers in the spring of 1994. One day that June, I showed up at the Manuscript Division on the third floor, yellow researcher's card in hand.
I began ordering boxes from a descriptive list in a black loose-leaf notebook and read until the library closed at 6 p.m. I returned another day, and then another, and ultimately spent a good part of that summer dipping my big toe into the collection. The most striking of many striking things about it was its richness. The files covered the years 1925, when the New Yorker began, to the early eighties. For most of that time people actually communicated by writing letters back and forth -- and they kept the carbon copies! I read thousands of pieces of correspondence between New Yorker editors and such contributors as James Thurber, E. B. White, Edmund Wilson, John Updike, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Mary McCarthy, J. D. Salinger, John Hersey, Irwin Shaw, John O'Hara, Peter Taylor, Jean Stafford, Woody Allen, Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, and many, many others. Some of the letters were historical curiosities. In 1928, the future playwright Clifford Odets, then a touring actor who was trying to break into the magazine as a writer (he never succeeded), wrote, from Philadelphia, to the editor Katharine Angell: "Chalk one up for the New Yorker. Lou Powers, our character woman, fell off her dressing room stool when she came to that 'cow is not content' (drawing by Frueh) business in last week's issue. The actors on stage had to 'ad lib' frantically while she gained her composure."
Then there was the carbon of a 1929 letter from Harold Ross, who founded the magazine and remained editor until his death in 1951, trying to recruit his friend Groucho Marx as a contributor: "If you would listen to me, you would write a lot and get a big reputation as a writer and plenty of publicity for the Marx Brothers which, God knows, they need."
Hidden away in one file was a 1949 letter written by a seventeen-year-old from Shillington, Pennsylvania:
I would like some information on those little filler drawings you publish and, I presume, buy. What size should they be? Mounted or not? Are there any preferences as to subject matter, weight of cardboard, and technique?
I will appreciate any information you give me, for I would like to try my hand at it.
There was no response in the file, nor was John Updike ever successful in placing any kind of artwork in the magazine. Four and a half years later, however, just after graduating from Harvard, Updike sold the first of (many) stories and the first of (many) poems to the New Yorker. On his way to England, where he had a one-year postgraduate fellowship, he stopped in to see fiction editor William Maxwell, who described the meeting in a memo to his colleague Katharine White. (This was the same person as Katharine Angell; she changed her name following her marriage in 1929 to E. B. White, whose nickname was Andy.)
Just a note to tell you that Updike turned up and I took him to lunch. Had you met him? Very modest, shy, intelligent humorous youngster, slightly gawky in his manner and already beginning, being an artist, to turn it into a kind of style, by way of self-defense. Andy and Thurber are his gods. Our buying a story seems to have momentarily floored him, but I don't expect it will outlast the publication of the story. He hopes also to be a comic artist. Is married. Distrusts adventure and is, in short, true to type. I liked him very much, and Shawn told me to tell him that when he came back to this country, if he wanted to work here, we'd find something.
Needless to say, not every prospective contributor met with as much success as Updike. The New Yorker Records held carbons of enough rejection notes -- some of them quite detailed -- to make a grim anthology. They were written to the likes of Gertrude Stein, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Kerouac, Nelson Algren, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Gass, and just about every other American writer practicing in the final two-thirds of the twentieth century. Rejectees usually took their medicine quietly, but someone who did not was Cynthia Ozick. "Gentlemen," she wrote on January 5, 1962:
For a number of years now I have been sending you poems, and until very recently I have always found you entirely reliable. Exactly seven days after each new poem has been dropped into the mail, it has come punctually home, accompanied by that little rejection slip of yours marked with the number 1 in the left-hand bottom corner. (You know the one.) You have, as I say, been altogether faithful and dependable. For example, it is never six days, it is certainly never eight or nine days. It is always seven days to the minute, and your conscientious devotion to precision all these years has been matched, to my knowledge, only by the butcher's deliver-boy, whose appearance is also predicated on a seven-day cycle.
This time, however, you have failed me. A poem of mine, entitled "An Urgent Exhortation to His Admirers and Dignifiers: Being the Transcript of an Address Before the Mark Twain Association by Samuel Clemens, Shade," reached you on December 18, 1961, and, though eighteen days have already passed, a daily inspection of my letterbox yields nothing. I have enough confidence in your hitherto clean record of never considering anything I have submitted not to be tempted into the unworthy suspicion that the delay is actually caused by your liking this poem. What has been shattered, I must admit, is my sense of serenity, of certitude, nay, of security -- not to mention my sense of rhythm. Does this mean you can no longer be relied on to conform to the seven-day schedule you have consistently adhered to in the past? In short, is the Age of Doubt truly upon us? O tempora!
Or (but I venture this with a cheery hopefulness I do not dare to feel) is it only that you have finally gone and lost my manuscript? I realize I am probably being too sanguine in putting forth this rosy possibility, but I guess I am just basically an optimistic sort. Please reassure me that this, rather than some flaw in your clockworks (even to contemplate which disillusions me hideously), is the real nature of the difficulty.
I expect your answer in seven days.
There was no answer in the file, nor was the poem ever published in the New Yorker -- although, some twenty years later, Ozick became a regular contributor to the magazine.
From my reading of past books about the New Yorker, I had known Harold Ross was an inveterate letter- and memo-writer. There in the library were a plentiful supply of his famous "query sheets," with numbered questions (most famously, "Who he?") corresponding to points in the story where the author had committed ambiguity, illogic, or confusion. And there were hundreds of wonderful stream-of-consciousness outpourings, typed (badly) by himself. One -- undated, but from the 1930s -- was in response to E. B. White, his most valued contributor, who had objected to a New Yorker ad containing the phrase "Satin Tissue." (The first page of Ross's typescript is reproduced on page 20.)
The files also shed light on the most celebrated art form to come out of the New Yorker -- the cartoon. There were minutes of the famous "art meeting," where Ross would accept, reject, or give orders for improving the cartoons submitted that week. On March 28, 1933, a Carl Rose cartoon with the caption "Speak, Mr. Pennywhistle, speak to me" came up for discussion. Ross's curt suggestion: "Reduce Mr. Pennywhistle and make him concave." A 1929 memo to Ross from Katharine Angell described the seventeen cartoon genres that had already, just four years into the magazine's existence, become cliches.
But the files offered more than fascinating footnotes to literary and journalistic history. I gradually sensed that the correspondence they held told, en masse, a story. The story was how a tiny weekly humor magazine, founded in the jazz age on champagne vapor, became, within about ten years, a major literary enterprise, publishing the fiction of John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw, and Kay Boyle; the journalism of Alva Johnston, Joseph Mitchell, and A. J. Liebling; the comic art of Charles Addams, Helen Hokinson, and Peter Arno; and the humor and essays of E. B. White, James Thurber, and S. J. Perelman -- and then how that magazine changed over the decades to adapt to new artists and new times.
On the one hand, it was possible to see the taste and vision of the editors broadening to accept this work. But what was even more fascinating, I could also see an artist or writer latching onto what had already been published in the magazine and extrapolating from it something wonderful and new. In time, this process begat whole new graphic and literary genres, and enduring work -- a Charles Addams or Saul Steinberg cartoon, a humor piece by Thurber, a John Cheever short story, a piece of reportage by Joseph Mitchell or A. J. Liebling -- that simply would not have existed in the absence of the New Yorker. The aesthetic that eventually came to inform the New Yorker had its shortcomings. It was rarely receptive to elliptical, experimental, gritty, or subversive artists, or to work that came from the margins of society. And it did provide a home to writing that was precious, smug, tiresomely literal, too long, or just plain dull. Yet the New Yorker at its best -- and it was quite often at its best -- had a unique quality in our literary culture. It was mindful of readers, aiming to amuse them, delight them, instruct them, or transport them; it always respected their intelligence and never pandered.
As an example of how one of the magazine's genres evolved, consider the case of Irwin Shaw. In 1935, a barely published twenty-two-year-old, Shaw began peppering the New Yorker with submissions. One short story, "Second Mortgage," elicited a sympathetic rejection from editor John Mosher: "We have a feeling in general that a story so ambitious, so sad, of such generally dismal setting, hardly has a place in a more or less cheerful or humorous magazine. We think, however, that you write with considerable distinction and we want you to do more at once and send them all to us."
Mosher obviously paused before writing the next paragraph: "I did not mean to indicate above that we do not publish stories of tragedy, but that we are perhaps more demanding and critical in such cases than we are in our lighter moments. After all, I suppose that it is perfectly justifiable, and that the grimmer aspects of life require more delicate handling than the more comic."
Reading between the lines of Mosher's letter, one could sense the New Yorker poised on the precipice of change, ready to expand its own definition of suitable fiction. Shaw seized the moment, continued submitting, and eventually published such ambitious, sad stories as "Sailor off the Bremen," "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," and "The City Was in Total Darkness," which stretched the New Yorker story, figuratively and literally. (Shaw kept breaking his own record for the longest piece of fiction in the magazine.) But that did not mean author and magazine henceforth were in perfect harmony, and in fact in the mid-1950s they had a painful, acrimonious divorce. Until that point, editors such as Gus Lobrano continually tried to rein in Shaw's melodramatic and expressionistic urges, while Shaw continually tried to get the magazine to be less bound by various kinds of propriety. Upset over the rejection of a story called "Africa Without Germans," he wrote Lobrano in 1943 that he was infuriated by
the patronizing sniffing of critics when they call my stories "New Yorker stories," meaning thereby something pallid and cold that is inexplicably used to pad out the space between cartoons and the Talk of the Town....The trouble is, I think, that you're overworking your famous urbanity and objectivity to a point where too much of your stuff has a high, even gloss, whether it's on the subject of death, disaster, love, anything....
There is no reason for losing urbanity, but there is place for emotion, place for personal writing, too. It is not as though the New Yorker has remained unchanged from beginning to now. It has changed and changed, all for the better...and it will undoubtedly keep on changing, it if wants to keep its place. What I'm trying to do is accelerate the change, make it operate for my own advantage, naturally. [Ellipses Shaw's.]
Jumping ahead thirty years, one could chart the process of the magazine and another vitally important contributor adapting to each other. One of the several hundred fiction manuscripts that arrived at the New Yorker one week in 1972 was a short story called "Blue Eggs," written by a young college English instructor named Ann Beattie. It found its way from the slush pile to the desk of fiction editor Roger Angell, and he wrote to Beattie: "These little slices and moments are often surprisingly effective, but the story itself seems to get away from you as it goes along. It seems possible that there is more form than substance here, but perhaps that is unfair. What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self-assurance. I hope you will let us see more of your work, and that you will address your future submissions directly to me." Angell rejected thirteen of Beattie's stories over the next twenty-two months. He was usually patient and encouraging, but sometimes a bit of exasperation showed through. At one point, he wrote: "I wish you would try a very quiet and modest story -- one that relies on no devices and is content merely to bring us to its discoveries. But whatever you do write, please continue to send it to us."
Beattie tried to balance her own artistic needs with the requirements expressed by Angell. Finally, in November 1973, she submitted a story called "A Platonic Relationship," along with a cover note indicating she had tried to meet the magazine more than halfway: "In this story I have taken pains to do something you have said might work several times before: to write a simple story. No times shifts, characters named, backgrounds understandable, and hopefully not entirely depressing."
Sitting in the Rare Books and Manuscript Room, reading Angell's reply, I found myself getting a little choked up. He wrote:
Yes, we are taking A PLATONIC RELATIONSHIP, and I think this is just about the best news of the year. Maybe it isn't the best news for you, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure (well, almost nothing) than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you have. It's a fine story, I think -- original, strong, and true.
At the end of the summer, I knew I would write a book about the New Yorker. I was aware that mine would hardly be the first; I had pleasurably read the two most famous, Gill's Here at the New Yorker and Thurber's The Years with Ross. But neither Gill nor Thurber nor any other author had had access to the New Yorker Records. What's more, theirs and every other book ever written about the magazine had been biographical, autobiographical, or anecdotal in emphasis. (Thomas Kunkel's fine biography of Harold Ross, Genius in Disguise, came out the following year; it was followed by memoirs from New Yorker writers Ved Mehta, Lillian Ross, and Renata Adler.) What I had in mind was a critical and cultural history. It would consider, first, the content of the magazine -- how its original form came to be, and how and why it evolved over the years. Second, I would look at the role the New Yorker has played in American cultural life -- among the literati and among people like my mother and Isadora Wing -- for the seventy-five years of its existence.
In writing this book, my main resource has been the New Yorker Records. But I also sat down and read the entire run of the New Yorker from 1925 to 1935, when the magazine underwent its most revolutionary change, and as many of the more than three thousand subsequent issues as time allowed. I canvassed the voluminous secondary literature on the magazine and its contributors. I interviewed more than five dozen New Yorker artists, writers, and editors, from William Steig and the late Emily Hahn, who first appeared in its pages in 1929; to Philip Hamburger, William Maxwell, and the late Joseph Mitchell and Brendan Gill, who came in the thirties; to Gardner Botsford and Eleanor Gould Packard, from the forties; to Whitney Balliett and Roger Angell, from the fifties; to Calvin Trillin and Jonathan Schell, from the sixties; to Ian Frazier and Daniel Menaker, from the seventies; to eighties arrivals Bill McKibben and Robert Gottlieb; all the way up to David Remnick, who grew up in a house where the New Yorker was reverently read. I corresponded on paper with John Updike and via E-mail with Garrison Keillor. And, of course, I surveyed more than three hundred "longtime readers."
What this additional research revealed was a story that amplified and paralleled the one in the files: the story of the New Yorker as an institution. It had to do with the effect of the New Yorker on the creative artists linked to it, people such as Updike and Shaw and Beattie and Cheever and Steinberg and dozens of others, and also with what it meant (for themselves and the magazine) that such figures as Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, Jules Feiffer, Grace Paley, and Tom Wolfe were so resolutely not of the New Yorker. The additional story was about the way the New Yorker -- modestly under Harold Ross, to a much greater extent under William Shawn -- became more than a magazine. It became a totem for the educated American middle and upper-middle classes. It became the repository for increasingly high standards of English prose, taste, conscience, and civility. And gradually, all that weight proved to be too much for a weekly magazine to bear.
A word about perimeters. I have chosen to end the book proper in 1987, when Shawn was dismissed by Si Newhouse; an epilogue takes the story up to the present. That is not to imply that the magazine as it exists today doesn't have loyal readers or publish significant work. However, its story as a unique and influential institution in our culture, as I see it, is a two-act drama; when Shawn made his exit, the curtain came down.
We begin with a prologue, commencing with Harold Ross's arrival in Manhattan in 1919. Before joining him there, let's return for a moment to Hannah Turner and her Dartmouth man at the medical aid station in Italy. "They came to carry his stretcher away," she wrote to me, "and I leaned over and kissed his cheek (most of his head was bandaged) and told him how much those minutes had meant to me. He didn't need to tell me what they meant to him...his eyes and the grip on my hand told me everything.
"When I was able to check on him at the hospital a few days later, they said he had not survived the trip back."
Excerpted from About Town by Ben Yagoda Copyright © 2001 by Ben Yagoda. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ben Yagoda is the author of Will Rogers: A Biography and co-editor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. He is a regular contributor to numerous national publications. He teaches journalism at the University of Delaware and lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
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