The New Yorker and
The World It Made

Ben Yagoda
Harold Ross was an unlikely figure to create a magazine that --- for more than a half-a-century --- dominated American culture.

He was a product of Colorado and Utah, came out of the roughhouse of American newspapers of the early 20th Century. He had worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Call, but had also been editor of Stars and Stripes and --- after WWI --- the Home Sector, Yank Talk (being newspapers devoted to soldiers and veterans). He spent time at the American Legion Magazine and, of all things, the Shipping News.

The first issue of the New Yorker appeared out in February of 1925, with a printing of 15,000. It sold out at once. Within ten years, it had a circulation over 100,000, growing even during the worst of the depression. Its reputation, the number of subscribers, and revenues continued to climb until the early sixties.

He was an unlikely figure, that Ross. His rants --- spoken, not published --- could be lurid; his spelling could be terrible; in the quarter-century that he ran the New Yorker, he wrote but one article (and had the good taste to never be named on its pages). It was his concept of the magazine --- ever-changing, never static --- that made it into the astonishing work that it became. That, and the fact that Ross had elegant taste in hiring editors, doubly so in finding and encouraging good writers.

According to Yagoda, the magazine built its success by establishing a concept, and then letting the contributors stretch that concept. Whether it was the cartoons, the fiction, the reviews, or the "Reporter-at-Large" series --- the writers and cartoonists shaped the magazine --- at least until the last days of Ross' successor, William Shawn.

The other key, at least as Yagoda saw it, was the way that the New Yorker drew people in. For most of us, we first picked it up for the cartoons, for the wit and satire (Perelman, Thurber, Benchley), and for the "Newsbreaks" --- those little fillers and sarcastic comments that appeared at the end of articles or reviews. We then moved into "The Talk of the Town" --- short, pithy, sometimes funny, often trivial comments and bits of fact. Sooner or later, we started sampling the poetry and fiction. Finally, we would be drawn in by the extended articles, on medicine, or a profile, or a treatise on something quite unlikely --- such as one (I remember with pleasure) about the scientific study of road-kill.

Overall, we knew that the writing would be concise, factual, often merry, sometimes haunting. There would be no typographical or grammatical errors; the writing would be nigh about perfect; the facts would have been exhaustively checked. Overall, we knew that other readers around the country --- some of them highly influential --- were reading the same notes and comments and reviews and extended disquisitions. Thus we were connected to the intellectual, social, artistic, and political movers in America. It was our club, our exclusive, sophisticated club --- and we loved being a part of it.

§     §     §

Yagoda is a good writer, in the best New Yorker tradition. In point of fact, this is an extended "Reporter at Large" piece about the magazine, blended with profiles of several of the principals. About Town is jam-packed with facts and tales and stories from its first six decades.

For the first time, we learn the genesis of John Hersey's Hiroshima --- the single piece of writing in post-WWII America that made so many of us aware of what The Bomb could and did do to a people --- and perhaps, could do to us. For the first time, we learn how the magazine hid from the McCarthyites, and how it avoided the whole subject of race until, one day, out of the blue, there appeared James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." Possibly, because of this, the subject became a respectable one, taken out of the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and bibulous southern senators, becoming an issue for intellectual America. And, too, there was one of the most important publishing event of the sixties --- Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" which, for the first time, made us know that there was a price for progress, and it was heavy indeed.

Reading About Town, some of us are cast back to the fifties where we waited for the newest J. D. Salinger story which, with typical diffidence, was stuck like an Easter Egg somewhere in the middle of the magazine --- with no notice at all (there was no table of contents page in those days).

The way everything was presented, both in form and function, was sly and sophisticated. Since we hoped to be sly and smart and sophisticated and witty, we would read the magazine cover-to-cover, consuming it, living it, trying forever and a day to imitate its style and reserve and wit. We wanted to be no more nor less than modern-day Renaissance Men --- and the New Yorker was our guide-book.

§     §     §

Oh the stories that Yagoda tells. How the writers who finally succeeded (Cheever, Howe, Shaw) would submit story after story after story --- until one finally took. How a writer, new, untested, unknown, would sometimes get a manuscript back, with a letter, sometimes a long letter, free criticism from the best in the business --- the likes of William Maxwell, Katharine White, Roger Angell and (in the early days) from Ross himself.

And since all the people involved in it were writers, editors and contributors, the correspondence that went back and forth between them was no less than a torrent. Which is, indeed, the backbone of Yagoda's work: he has had access to papers going back before the time when the New Yorker was the New Yorker. These writers were on the same floor of the same building, even next door to each other, but, still, three or five or seven page memos would flow back and forth between them. Thus, the generous sources for his history (and we wonder that he was able to weed through it all so artfully).

And from his examples, we find that, so often, what they wrote to each other was as artful as what appeared on the pages of the magazine. For example, S. J. Perelman first met Harold Ross in 1940, and wrote to one of the editors of the magazine:

    I must say I was surprised meeting Ross, as I had expected a much older man. Our interview was satisfactory enough except that he kept tugging at a rubber nipple and murmuring "Gloo, gloo," which I ascribed either to teething or heat rash. But he is a very enterprising fellow, make no mistake about it. (This in case you were thinking of making some mistake about it.)

And, oh --- the debates. About whether to publish "Hiroshima" in a single issue or in three; about whether to admit a few more "hells" and "damns" (in the early days), and, as always, over the years, fretting endlessly about which lurid words or phrases (or ideas) could be permitted, and which not. And, yes, commas:

    One sentence from a 1948 casual has seven commas in just forty-six words: "When I read, the other day, in the suburban-news section of a Boston newspaper, of the death of Mrs. Abigail Richardson (as I shall call her), I was, for the moment, incredulous, for I had always thought of her as one of nature's indestructibles."

This from the translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni:

    I think Mr. Shawn is rather heavy with his commas. This is not my first encounter with them. I read the New Yorker and often feel they clog perfectly good sentences. I've also run into them in Alastair Reid's translations, which I am editing. I've got a jarful of Reid's commas that I've removed and some day will ship them back to the New Yorker.

According to Yagoda, William Shawn --- Ross' successor --- ran the magazine in what one might call a baroque manner. Shawn would meet with writers for lunch, sit silently, saying nothing; or offer them a cigarette (out of an empty package). One would never know if a "Notes & Comment" piece was accepted until it appeared in print. If some of the staff seemed to be having a good time together during the day, Shawn would move them to different cubicules, separate them out like noisy children.

Hendrik Hertzberg once said, "Shawn was an absolute monarch, a dictator. There were no office politics, except in the sense that there were office politics in the Ottoman Empire." And then there was always Shawn's reaction to Tom Wolfe's wonderful take on the magazine, which Shawn tried to get expunged from New York Magazine even before it was published in 1965. (Can you see the headline: Purveyor of Honest Journalism Tries to Censor?) Wolfe's story was entitled "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!" One part went,

    Shawn is 57 years old but still has a boyish face, a small, plump man, round in the cheeks. He always seems to have on about 20 layers of clothes, about three button-up sweaters, four vests, a couple of shirts, two ties, it looks that way, a dark shapeless suit over the whole ensemble, and white cotton socks. Here he is in the hall, and he lowers his head and puts out his hand..."Hello --- Mr. ---," he begins nodding, "--- Taylor --- how --- are --- you," with his head down, nodding down, down, down, down, "--- it's--- nice ---" his head is down and he rolls his eyes up and looks out from under his own forehead...nodding, smiling, infectious! Good for one! One does the same, whispering, nodding, getting the old head down, smiling, edging back, rolling the eyeballs up the precipice of the forehead. One becomes quiet, gentle, genteelly, magnificiently numbly, so ---

Criticism of the magazine was rare in those days, for we all knew it to be Sacred. Perhaps it still is. "Tiny Mummies" is Wolfe's only piece of mature writing that hasn't been anthologized.

§     §     §

So many, so very many of the writers that shaped American fiction passed through the doors and pages of the New Yorker --- John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, J. D. Salinger. But --- until we read it here --- we often forget about the ones that got away: Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos and --- in poetry --- so many, the likes of Gregory Corso, Alan Ginsburg and Richard Brautigan.

On the subject of verse, by the way, and not unlike Ross, Yagoda tends to be somewhat blind. He tells us that Howard Moss --- who ran the poetry department at the New Yorker for so long --- was "a young poet of great talent and wide-ranging taste," but, in reality, Moss was a moss-bound fussy old nitwit who never did catch on to the trends in American poetry --- and might well have set verse in this country back fifty years with his dull-bulb affection for the Fullbright fellows on a year's sabbatical in Italy, writing about the sunsets in Livorno.

§     §     §

The New Yorker reached into many of our lives in many ways. I remember a couple myself.

There was a New Yorker scandal at the hoity-toity boarding school I went to in the fifties. For our finals in English Literature, we seniors were given five or ten of the Newsbreaks, along with sarcastic comment. We were asked to explain the humor of the piece, and the reason for the comment. I can remember hearing sighs and boos in the examination room because we knew we were victims of our English teachers' obsession with a magazine which, as of yet, we didn't care for (except the cartoons, and perhaps the stories by Salinger, which we felt were written for us).

Like most of the writers of my generation, I knew the only place worth being published in America was at 25 West 43th Street. Over the years, I probably collected fifty rejection slips from them. When one came in the mail, there would be no anger, but, rather, an assumption that I had not yet reached that place, the place where I was good enough to appear in the same pages as O'Hara, Shaw, Cheever, A. J. Liebling or Vladimir Nabokov. In other words, we writers would criticise our own art, never the standards of the New Yorker.

I finally gave up, but then the gods gave me a piece of the magazine. It happened in 1968. I was running a miniscule but noisy FM station in Seattle at the time, and I routinely sent our program guide to Michael Arlen who did the radio-TV column for the New Yorker. At one point we got busted by the Federal Communications Commission for running a hot speech by James Bevel, one of Martin Luther King's friends and fellow civil rights organizer. The FCC stated that someone had complained to them that the speech was obscene. They sent an agent from the FBI over to KRAB to pick up the tape.

I was miffed, for the speech was scarcely obscene (by today's standards it was tame). It was, on top of it all, a hell of a good piece of rhetoric. I wrote a fairly angry article about freedom of speech and such for our program guide. Michael Arlen read it and wrote about our plight in an issue of the magazine. The article was called "Watchman of the Night," after Isaiah --- "Watchman, what of the night? Watchman what of the night?/The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night." I never got the reference, but I loved the artistic presentation of our problem.

One of the newspapers in Seattle printed the entire article, we were praised for our courage, and most of all --- we were important. The world was good and powerful and just: they paid attention to the doings of the little folk. Best of all, I was now free of the burden of sending off stories and poems to the magazine to get rejected, because I had reached the pinnacle. They had let me in through the back door.

Yagoda, as much as Ross or Shawn or the fact-checkers, has included some great trivia. In the notes at the end of About Town, he quotes a piece from the magazine that grew out of one of Ross' famous queries, from January 24, 1934:
What is on the radio and in electronic sound transmitting devices the equivalent of "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party"? Has the radio a set phrase to try out enunciation of announcers and performers? I am told that the Bell Telephone Laboratories have a set piece, if no one else has. It is (from the memory of my source) something like: "Joe put father's shoe bench out; she was waiting at my lawn."
Two years later (!) the article appeared in the magazine.
We've reproduced it at

Jovial Squaw by Aquarium

--- Lorenzo W. Milam

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