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A Note by George Packer
In late May 1940, the writer A. J. Liebling awaited the Second World War in “a little Marseillais restaurant on the Rue Monmartre,” dining on “Mediterranean rouget burned in brandy over twigs of fennel.” He had returned as a correspondent for The New Yorker to the city of his youthful adventures in food and other passions soon after the German invasion of Poland, in the fall of 1939, and he had spent the months of the Phony War in a state of suspended disbelief. Drawing comfort from the “gastronomic normality” of Parisian life, he convinced himself that the Nazis were overrated and the French would put up a tough fight—that this was a replay of the First World War. Even after the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg cut through Holland and Belgium “as through butter” and prepared to devour France, Liebling couldn’t believe in the coming catastrophe. “The rouget tasted too much as good rouget always had,” he wrote; “the black-browed proprietor was too normally solicitous; even in the full bosom and strong legs of the waitress there was the assurance that this life in Paris would never end.”
In some ways it was still 1925, the year of The New Yorker’s birth. Even after a decade of worldwide depression and rising Fascist power, the magazine remained dedicated to the sophisticated tastes of what its founding editor, Harold Ross, in a letter to prospective investors and subscribers, called “metropolitan life.” The main stage was New York, the tone ironic and detached, never passionately engaged, immune to shock. Ross prescribed that the weekly commentary be written “in a manner not too serious”; the magazine prided itself on never taking a political stand. Hitler made a few scattered appearances in its pages during the thirties, as tyrant or buffoon—notably in Janet Flanner’s three-part Profile in 1936, based on interviews with the Führer, whose anti-Semitism and race fanaticism received slightly less space than his vegetarianism and celibacy. In 1933, when few people outside Germany understood what Nazism portended, E. B. White, the anonymous voice of the magazine’s Comment, wrote, “Thus in a single day’s developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark.” But two years later, he fell back into characteristic lightheartedness: “We predict that there will be no war in 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, and 1940. There will be a small war in 1941 between Cambodia and Alberta over a little matter of some Irish Sweepstake tickets, and then there will be no war in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946. Our prophecy is no mere wish-fulfillment—it packs a heap of personal good feelings toward nations.” It was as if the magazine knew that the world of witty table talk, society portraits, and Broadway lowlifes was doomed, but, like a character in a Thurber sketch, it couldn’t bring itself to wake up from an entertaining dream that had begun to quiver with sinister undertones.
At the end of the summer of 1939, with war apparently imminent, White’s Comment finally showed The New Yorker to be capable of shock. It sounded the note of a highly civilized sensibility forced to engage with something alien, ugly, and inescapable: “Today is Sunday, August 27th. Perhaps you don’t remember that far back, you who presumably now dwell in a world which is either at peace or at war. . . . If war comes, it will be war, and no one wants that. If peace is restored, it will be another arrangement enlarging not simply the German boundary but the Hitler dream. The world knows it can’t win.”
The war opened The New Yorker to the wider world. Without changing beyond recognition, it became a more serious magazine; without sounding like Time or The New Republic, it became political. It rediscovered places it already knew, perhaps a little too well (London, Paris, Hell’s Kitchen), and it discovered places that it had never imagined (Tunisia, the Marianas Islands). The Second World War was total war, involving cities, villages, and much of the world’s population, with battlefields in a hotel lobby or an uninhabited island. Partly for this reason, the coverage in The New Yorker benefitted from the fact that it was a literary magazine, matching writers to subjects in ways that produced some of the greatest and most original journalism of the war.
Ross deployed much of his available talent to cover the conflict. The New Yorker’s war correspondents included the magazine’s former managing editor, a movie critic, a sportswriter, humorists, and short-story writers, as well as some of its leading reporters. By happenstance, Mollie Panter-Downes, an English novelist living on a pig farm in Surrey, became the magazine’s London correspondent in time for Dunkirk and the Blitz, and her understated style perfectly captures the British talent for survival through disengagement that Americans learned to admire during the war: “Incidentally, the announcements of the first air-raid deaths are beginning to appear in the obituary columns of the morning papers. No mention is made of the cause of death, but the conventional phrase ‘very suddenly’ is always used. Thousands of men, women, and children are scheduled to die very suddenly, without any particular notice being taken of them in the obituary columns.”
The focus of The New Yorker’s war reporting is rarely the big picture. Grand strategy is almost never discussed; the Eastern Front, inaccessible to the magazine’s reporters, hardly exists; the names Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin appear less often than those of ordinary soldiers. The largest event in human history is witnessed in small stories, through details and characters, in what the writer is able to see and hear—an elegant third-floor London drawing room exposed by bombing; a tearful conversation between a major and the sergeant he’s casually but deeply offended. The neutrality and omniscience of modern newspaper reporting are not the guiding principle here. The writer’s personal relation to the subject is often what gives a piece its insight and power. When the playwright S. N. Behrman visits London for the first time since the start of the war, he finds the nightly blackout terrifyingly total and eerily beautiful. Who would have known that London’s Underground shelters blasted American pop tunes all night long, if Behrman hadn’t made a point of going down into one?
Liebling—corpulent, witty, and pleasure-loving—becomes an unlikely correspondent with the U.S. Army in North Africa, and later goes on to cover the landings at Normandy and the liberation of Paris. While the memory of his French pleasures occasionally intrudes, like hunger pangs, Liebling’s exuberance is restrained, his comic impulses sobered up, his baroque prose style rendered more straightforward and exact by the vast, death-haunted experience in which he plays a small part.
The war consumed The New Yorker, along with the rest of the country. Ross begged the War Department for more draft deferments, complaining that he had lost half his editorial staff to military service, and making a case for the magazine’s importance to the war effort. In the journalism of the Second World War, the difference between civilian and military dissolved in ways that later became impossible with an all-volunteer army. New Yorker correspondents describe the soldiers they meet by their prewar identity (“He was a yacht broker in civilian life and often wrote articles about boats”; “All Riley wanted to do was finish the war and go back to the University of Texas”). A few contributed work to the magazine while still in uniform, while some writers joined the action as if they were members of the unit they were covering. In some of the terse, atmospheric frontline dispatches, it can be hard to tell which was written by a soldier and which by a reporter.
This closeness between observer and participant is accompanied by an open partisanship that became unthinkable after Vietnam. Panter-Downes says of her English countrymen, “The behavior of all classes is so magnificent that no observer here could ever imagine these people following the French into captivity.” St. Clair McKelway’s series on the strategic bombing of Japan is called “A Reporter with the B-29s,” but in fact McKelway was a public-affairs officer with the 21st Bomber Command of the Army Air Force—an official censor. He referred to the enemy as “Japs,” never once paused to consider the human cost of the incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo, and revered the generals who were his direct superiors (including Curtis LeMay), while portraying them with subtlety and humor. In other words, McKelway wrote as a lieutenant colonel whose job was P.R., and who was also a great reporter on the staff of The New Yorker—a convergence of roles that would not occur at the magazine today. There’s a loss of plausible objectivity in the arrangement, but McKelway wrote about men at war with a frank and knowledgeable love that scarcely appears any longer in American journalism.
When the war was over, Ross realized that the changes in The New Yorker would be permanent. “I think our transition to peace, art, amusement, frivolity, etc., will be gradual,” he wrote to Flanner, in June 1946, “and probably the magazine will never get back to where it was, on account of having gone heavyweight to a considerable extent during the war.” The magazine was about to go even heavier. William Shawn, Ross’s deputy (and later his successor), had assigned a young novelist and reporter named John Hersey—the son of missionaries in China—to travel through occupied Japan and write about the effects of the atomic bomb. “Hiroshima” filled the entire issue of August 31, 1946.
Hersey’s method of re-creating the destruction of the city through the fate of six individuals produced a daring new form of journalism, modeled on fiction. It portrayed civilians in America’s hated enemy, Japan, for the first time as human beings. It rendered the destructive power of nuclear energy all the more terrifying for being brought down to its minute particulars—to the flower patterns seared from women’s kimonos onto their skin. The Second World War ended with two radical new shocks to human conscience: the death camps and the bomb. The first received its most eloquent testimony from survivors. The second shock was absorbed in the pages of The New Yorker, and transformed into literary art.
Notes and Comment
E. B. White
September 2, 1939
This will be one of those mute paragraphs written despite the impossible interim of magazine publication, handed over to a linotyper who has already heard later news. Today is Sunday, August 27th. Perhaps you don’t remember that far back, you who presumably now dwell in a world which is either at peace or at war. It is three o’clock in the morning. The temperature in New York is 70 degrees, sky overcast. The long vigil at the radio is beginning to tell on us. We have been tuned in, off and on, for forty-eight hours, trying to snare intimations of our destiny, as in a butterfly net. Destiny, between musical transcriptions. We still twitch nervously from the likelihood of war at 86 on the dial to the possibility of peace at 100 on the dial. The hours have induced a stupor; we glide from Paris to London to Berlin to Washington—from supposition to supposition, lightly. (But that wasn’t a supposition, that was the Hotel Astor.) The war of nerves, they call it. It is one of those phrases that catch on. Through it all the radio is immense. It is the box we live in. The world seems very close at hand. (“Countless human lives can yet be saved.”) We sit with diners at the darkened tables in the French cafés, we pedal with the cyclists weekending in the beautiful English countryside, we march alongside the German troops approaching the Polish border, we are a schoolboy slipping on his gas mask to take shelter underground from the raid that hasn’t come, we sit at the elbow of Sir Nevile as he presents the message to the British Cabinet (but what does it say?). Hour after hour we experience the debilitating sensation of knowing everything in the world except what we want to know—as a child who listens endlessly to an adult conversation but cannot get the gist, the one word or phrase that would make all clear. The world, on this Sunday morning, seems pleasingly unreal. We’ve been reading (between bulletins) that short story of Tomlinson’s called “Illusion: 1915,” which begins on a summer day in France when the bees were in the limes. But this is Illusion 1939, this radio sandwich on which we chew, two bars of music with an ominous voice in between. And the advertiser, still breaking through: “Have you acquired the safety habit?” Moscow is calling New York. Hello, New York. Let me whisper I love you. They are removing the pictures from the museums. There was a time when the mere nonexistence of war was enough. Not any more. The world is in the odd position of being intellectually opposed to war, spiritually committed to it. That is the leaden note. If war comes, it will be war, and no one wants that. If peace is restored, it will be another arrangement enlarging not simply the German boundary but the Hitler dream. The world knows it can’t win. Let me whisper I love you while we are dancing and the lights are low.
A. J. Liebling
August 3/10, 1940 (On the fall of France)
On Saturday, May 11th, the day after the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium, I had a letter from Jean-Pierre, a corporal in one of the two French armored divisions, which were created after the Polish campaign. They were good divisions, and Jean-Pierre had no way of knowing that the Germans had six times as many. “The real rough-house is about to begin,” he wrote. “So much the better! It will be like bursting an abscess.” Jean-Pierre, whose parents were my oldest friends in France, was a strong, quiet boy who in civil life had been a draughtsman in an automobile factory. He liked to play ice hockey and collect marine algae. He had not wanted a soft job in a factory during the war because he did not want to be considered a coward.
On the same morning I had a telephone conversation with another friend of mine, Captain de Sombreuil, who had just arrived from Alsace on furlough. Upon reaching the Gare de l’Est, he had learned that all furloughs were cancelled, so he was going back by the next train. He called me up to say that he wouldn’t be able to go to the races at Auteuil with me as he had planned. “It’s good that it’s starting at last,” he said. “We can beat the Boches and have it over with by autumn.”
In the afternoon I went to Auteuil alone. I watched a horse belonging to Senator Hennessy, the cognac man, win the Prix Wild Monarch for three-year-old hurdlers. The track was crowded with people whose main preoccupations seemed to be the new three-year-olds and the new fashions being worn by the women.