Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker

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 new 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.”