During our stay-at-home because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve started to read what turns out to be quite an extensive collection of books either about The New Yorker or reproducing content from the magazine’s history. So rather that bury these in some other section, I’ll gather them together here as I read them. Somewhat contrary to my intentions elsewhere in this Bookshelf, I’ll include anthologies here, as I have a number of them that reproduce content from The New Yorker. But even for the anthologies, I’ll have comments to make about the contents.
Brendan Gill. Here at The New Yorker. New York: Random House, 1975.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of The New Yorker, Brendan Gill, who had worked for the magazine for almost four decades at that point, wrote a witty, comprehensive memoir of his experiences and impressions. The book is especially thorough in portraying the many different writers, editors, and staff members of the magazine. He also characterizes the changes over time in the character of the magazine. He is especially thorough in his recounting of the two editors he worked with, Harold Ross and William Shawn. These two men were about as different as could be, yet they oversaw a publication that kept its identity intact. The volume has ample cartoons, photographs, reproductions, and sketches that cover the important visual elements of both the magazine and the participants. The book ends with an especially nice essay by Shawn about his predecessor, Ross. As a memoir by a participant, it contrasts well with the more scholarly histries of Vinciguerra and Yagoda, reviewed below.
Robert Gottlieb. Avid Reader: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.
Even though this is a memoir, and therefore technically a biography, I’m putting it here, because so much of Gottlieb’s career involved editing works of fiction, and he recounts numerous interactions with fiction writers. His extraordinary career involved several remarkable epochs. His first serious job was as an editor for Simon & Schuster, and over the course of a dozen years there he rose to be editor-in-chief. He edited such famous works as Catch-22, True Grit, The Chosen, and worked with a who’s who of literature. He next moved to Alfred A. Knopf as again editor-in-chief, where he worked with Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, John le Carre, Michael Crichton, Katherine Graham, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, and Bill Clinton, among many others. He had a five-year stint as editor of The New Yorker, sandwiched between the legendary William Shawn and the tempestuous Tina Brown. He continued to edit Knopf authors even while at The New Yorker, and resumed doing so again after that. Incredibly, even amidst his heavy workload as editor, he did major work with the New York City Ballet and later the Miami City Ballet, both reflecting his life-long love of ballet. He edited a number of book-length collections, and also wrote extensively for a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. The activity he loved the most throughout his life was reading, and he was able to turn this into a satisfying and in the long run remunerative career. This extraordinary memoir is a saga of modern literature at its most fascinating.
Thomas Vinciguerra. Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.
This entertaining volume covers the people involved in roughly the first 50 or so years of The New Yorker. It begins with Harold Ross’s idea of a new kind of magazine, traces the engagement of the initial panoply of editors and authors, and ends up with the demises of most of these early pioneers and the transition to the second principal editor. Willian Shawn. We see the emergence of the mixed style of editorials, essays, cartoons, poetry, and fiction. The often irreverent style becomes muted with the Second World War, and the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima as a complete special issue in 1946 is a hallmark of the kind of serious, topical writing that continues to the present. I began reading The New Yorker on a regular basis after the period covered here, but of course am familiar with the work of many of those covered in this narrative. But there were also many revelations, such as the incredible 1936 parody of Time magazine, the episodic character of E.B. White’s engagement with the magazine, the blindness of James Thurber, and the high levels of drunkenness and addiction among many of the principles. I also liked the kind of message Ross gave to those he let go, “I’m firing you because you are not a genius.”
Ben Yagoda. About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. New York: Scribner, 2000.
This is a very detailed history of The New Yorker during the reigns of the first two editors: Harold Ross and William Shawn. It’s detailed chronology ends with 1987, when Shawn was fired and Robert Gottlieb was appointed editor. In a final Epilogue, it briefly described the transition to Gottlieb, then next to Tina Brown, and finally to David Remnick, who remains as editor to this day. The inspiration for doing this history came from the release, in 1994, of formerly unavailable archival material from The New Yorker’s files. These files were particularly rich during the editorship of Ross, who did everything by paper. Shawn was different: he mostly worked via face-to-face meetings, the telephone, and telegraphy. But even for that period there is a rich set of material. The story Yagoda tells is very detailed, and his aim is to capture the character of the magazine and it’s contributors throughout the period from 1925 to 1987. We learn a lot about the dynamics of reviewing and editing submissions, the reactions of the contributors as well as the relevant staff, and the effects of all of this on the reputation of the magazine. It’s a much more detailed history than Vinciguerra’s, reviewed above at times bordering on pedantic, but all-in-all, very entertaining as well as informative.