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Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker [NOOK Book]


"Maybe he doesn't like anything, but he can do everything," New Yorker editor Harold Ross once said of the magazine's brilliantly sardonic theater critic, Wolcott Gibbs. And, for over thirty years at the magazine, Gibbs did do just about everything. He turned out fiction and nonfiction, profiles and parodies, filled columns in "Talk of the Town" and "Notes and Comment," covered books, movies, nightlife and, of course, the theater. A friend of the Algonquin Round Table, Gibbs was renowned for his wit. (Perhaps ...
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Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker

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"Maybe he doesn't like anything, but he can do everything," New Yorker editor Harold Ross once said of the magazine's brilliantly sardonic theater critic, Wolcott Gibbs. And, for over thirty years at the magazine, Gibbs did do just about everything. He turned out fiction and nonfiction, profiles and parodies, filled columns in "Talk of the Town" and "Notes and Comment," covered books, movies, nightlife and, of course, the theater. A friend of the Algonquin Round Table, Gibbs was renowned for his wit. (Perhaps his most enduring line is from a profile of Henry Luce, parodying Time magazine's house style: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.")

While, in his day, Gibbs was equal in stature to E.B. White and James Thurber, today, he is little read. In Backward Ran Sentences, journalist Tom Vinciguerra introduces Gibbs and gathers a generous sampling of his finest work across an impressive range of genres, bringing a brilliant, multitalented writer of incomparable wit to a new age of readers.
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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…in his time there was scarcely anyone more skilled than Gibbs in the construction of English sentences. He was a master…He wrote with grace, wit and punch, and he wrote about almost everything…Gibbs's theater reviews alone are worth the price of this fat collection. He had the good fortune to be covering Broadway during what in retrospect looks for all the world like its Golden Age…His judgments…made on the run and under the gun, invariably are fair, astute and hold up very well after all these years. So does he.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
He may be obscure now, but Wolcott Gibbs was a New Yorker giant who held sway in the magazine's glory years with the likes of E.B. White, James Thurber, and Dorothy Parker. Gibbs's 1958 death made the New York Times's front page. Freelance journalist Vinciguerra offers a hefty sampling of Gibbs's versatile and voluminous oeuvre, the best-remembered his 1936 profile of publisher Henry Luce that doubled as a spoof of Time magazine and contained his famous quip on Time's weirdly inverted syntax: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind." In the wake of merciless profiles of presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, and of New Yorker contributor Alexander Woollcott, Dewey impounded Gibbs's bank account and Woollcott severed his relationship with the magazine. In his 18 years as the New Yorker's chief drama critic, Gibbs panned Beckett and Sartre, found My Fair Lady "highly intelligent and tremendously engaging," and arrived intoxicated at The Crucible's opening. Although probably too dated to draw a general audience, this book may revive some interest in Gibbs, especially among journalists, critics, and wordsmiths who will appreciate his dry, sharp wit, keen observational skills, elegant condescension, and take-no-prisoners attitude. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Fans of The New Yorker will welcome this collection of pieces written by Gibbs spanning the late 1920s through the early 1950s. New York Times contributor Vinciguerra intends to rescue Gibbs from growing obscurity with his introductory biographical essay and careful selection of articles. Gibbs was versatile, serving as an editor in addition to contributing to "The Talk of the Town" and writing profiles, parodies, short stories, and theater criticism. Profiles include the obscure, like Miss Rita Ross, the eccentric cat lady who collected stray cats to deliver to the SPCA, as well as the more famous, such as presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. Gibbs's wit shines through in the parodies, including one of "Yes, Virginia...," in which he portrays Santa Claus as a communist. In a foreword, P.J. O'Rourke provides his own parody of Gibbs. VERDICT Readers who enjoy the style and wit of The New Yorker will love this collection. It is easy to dip into for the perfect piece, and the large selection will satisfy.—Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Recalling his early years at The New Yorker, the late writer and editor William Maxwell once compared the magazine's fledgling operation to a family circus, one in which "the performers made up for the absence of numbers by the variety of their talents." Among the most versatile members of the troupe was Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, who glided among the roles of literary lion tamer, carnival barker and ringmaster with beguiling ease, writing everything from essays to theater reviews and parodies to profiles, along with short stories and "Talk of the Town" items thrown in for good measure. As Maxwell flatly declared, "there wasn't anything that Wolcott Gibbs couldn't or wouldn't do."

But Gibbs, who died in 1958 at the age of 56, is largely forgotten today, although many of his New Yorker contemporaries, such as E. B. White, James Thurber, A. J. Liebling and Robert Benchley, remain reliably in print. Thomas Vinciguerra hopes to change all that with Backward Ran Sentences, a new anthology aimed at bringing Gibbs's best work to a new generation of readers.

Although Vinciguerra's selection runs to 688 pages, it captures only a fraction of Gibbs's literary output, barely hinting at the productivity of a man who had begun his career at small community newspapers, where journalistic jacks-of-all-trades were an occupational necessity.

The title of this collection, which comes from Gibbs's 1936 parody of Time magazine's inverted grammatical style under founder Henry Luce, hints at why Gibbs's fame hasn't proven more durable. Many of the objects of his scorn have been obscured by the passage of time, robbing his satires of much of their pungency. "To a Little Girl at Christmas, " Gibbs's 1949 spoof of crusading right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, might seem as dated to modern readers as Saturday Night Live send-ups of Ross Perot will be to our grandchildren.

Luckily, much of the material in Backward Ran Sentences has greater staying power. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's meandering exercise in existential theater, is still very much with us, and those who continue to find the play a dreary bore can yet take heart in Gibbs's 1956 review, "Enough Is Enough Is Enough."

"Bert Lahr, who plays Gogo, has been quoted as saying that he has no idea what the damn play is about, " Gibbs tells readers. "His statement brings up the curious picture of a director, who presumably does understand his script, failing to share this useful knowledge with one of his stars, and it may be unique in the theatre."

Gibbs's stiletto critiques earned him a reputation as a misanthrope, and as Vinciguerra points out in a perceptive introduction, Gibbs was deeply troubled, remembered by friend Sam Behrman as "the unhappiest man I've ever known." But the biggest revelation in Backward Ran Sentences is Gibbs's presence, not as a glib curmudgeon but as a thoughtful philosopher. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, in a passage that eerily foreshadows the threat of twenty-first-century terrorism, Gibbs confesses to fearing that some agent of destruction "might come in from the sea without warning, very high and nearly silent, as impersonal as lightning."

Several other commentaries sound equally prophetic, including a 1939 "Talk of the Town" in which he complains of information overload from modern media: "We are too busy listening to hear anything in particular, too overwhelmed by the parts to see any outline of the whole. History, to be understood at all, should be absorbed a very little at a time, in solitude, and always a step or two behind the actual march of events." In 1939, warning of the rise of political and religious fundamentalism, Gibbs cautioned against "the mystical idea of God degraded into the likeness of an angry man, hating half the world."

Gibbs could also be surprisingly tender, as in a 1943 account of a timeless and universal experience, ushering a child into kindergarten: "We'd found nothing to say except goodbye when the bus left, and even now we could think of nothing that might have been helpful to a little girl on her way to school, to her first experience with the gathering perplexities that beset a lady on her own."

In its range and virtuosity, Backward Ran Sentences reminds the reader that what Gibbs wrote about Benchley could just as easily have been written about himself: "He was sure, wonderfully resourceful, and his style, really based on a lifelong respect for good writing, would have been admirable applied to anything."

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. Reviewer: Danny Heitman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608197309
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 10/18/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 688
  • File size: 975 KB

Meet the Author

Tom Vinciguerra is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and former deputy editor of The Week.

Wolcott Gibbs, born in 1902, began working at the New Yorker in 1927. A supremely gifted writer and editor, he had, by his mid-thirties, published more than a million words in the magazine, covering every section, although he was best known, in his later years, as a sharp theater critic. Gibbs died at the age of 56 on Fire Island.

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