The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."
This now-famous line first appeared in the prospectus Harold Ross wrote for a humor magazine he was hoping to start, and, in fact, epitomized the publication's early years. For, as contributing editor E.B. White once ruefully wrote in response to a query about what kind of submissions were wanted, "I myself have only the vaguest idea what sort of manuscripts The New Yorker wants. I have, however, a pretty clear idea of what it doesn't want."
Plenty of books have been written about The New Yorker over the years--many by people who were intimately connected with it. Ben Yagoda's About Town is the first, however, to concentrate on the magazine itself, rather than the personalities who shaped it. In his introduction Yagoda writes: "What I had in mind was a critical and cultural history. It would consider, first, the content of the magazine--how its original form came to be, and how and why it evolved over the years. Second, I would look at the role the New Yorker has played in American cultural life." Yagoda is as good as his word as he takes readers from the founding of the magazine in 1919 up until 1987, the year William Shawn was forcibly retired from his position as editor in chief. An epilogue covers the Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick years, but the author considers that with Shawn's departure, the curtain came down on The New Yorker as "a unique and influential institution in our culture."
Of course devotees of Harold Ross's brainchild could be expected to eat this book up, but About Town is more than just the story of how a magazine was made. Yagoda provides a window on a lost age--New York in the '20s, '30s, and '40s before the advent of television, when magazines and newspapers were at the center of the nation's cultural and intellectual life. He writes well, evoking the times, the people, and the places with such clarity that Harold Ross himself would have been pleased. And it is to Ross that Yagoda and the reader owe much of About Town, for it seems The New Yorker's founding editor kept meticulous records--as did those with whom he worked. When S.I. Newhouse took control of the magazine in 1985, its editorial files--all 2,500 archival boxes of them--ended up at the New York Public Library. Letters from editors to writers and vice versa, minutes from art meetings, memos, editorial queries, and marked-up manuscripts are the raw materials from which Yagoda shapes his story, and he tells it so well that it often reads like a novel. The section dealing with the magazine's decision to run John Hersey's Hiroshima in its entirety is positively gripping.
But perhaps the best thing about About Town--for those readers who, like Alice in Wonderland, demand pictures and conversations in their stories--is the plethora of memorable quotes (and even a few photographs) that bring to life The New Yorker in its heyday. Consider this letter from Vladimir Nabokov concerning a short story the magazine had bought:
A man called Ross started to "edit" it, and I wrote to Mrs. White telling her that I could not accept any of those ridiculous and exasperating alterations (odds and ends inserted in order to "link up" ideas and make them clear to the "average reader"). Nothing like it has ever happened to me in my life.
Or this snippet from Ross's letter to H.L. Mencken: "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control."
Lovers of The New Yorker can thank their stars that Harold Ross never did get his fussiness under control. And they can thank Ben Yagoda for writing this comprehensive and satisfying biography of one of America's most enduring literary institutions. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
Based on the recently opened New Yorker archives, Yagoda's compelling if slow-moving volume follows the workings and fortunes of the famous weekly magazine. Yagoda begins in 1924, just before the New Yorker's start as a humor journal. Founder Harold Ross's stylistic conservatism, his meticulous editing and his ability to delegate authority helped build up the magazine, creating what Yagoda considers its Golden Age in the late 1930s. WWII gave it new reach and seriousness. William Shawn's ascent to editor-in-chief in 1951 brought, at first, a prosperous complacency; his devotion to serious, long essays, and editor Roger Angell's eye for new fiction, created in the '70s, Yagoda argues, the magazine's second great period. But Shawn's eccentric secretiveness, his odd financial arrangements with writers and his unwillingness to allot power laid the grounds for the New Yorker's latter-day troubles. (A brief epilogue covers events after 1987, the year of the 79-year-old Shawn's dismissal.) "Whole new graphic and literary genres"--the long profile, John O'Hara's short stories, James Thurber's humor, Roz Chast's cartoons--"would not have come to be without the New Yorker"; Yagoda shows why and how they arose. Rich details illuminate the careers of essayists, humorists, critics and journalists, short story writers and cartoonists. Combining anecdote, biography, literary history and a serious look at the business side of the magazine, Yagoda (Will Rogers: A Biography) explores "the New Yorker as an institution," its "effect on the creative artists linked to it" and the way the magazine came to epitomize "the educated American middle and upper-middle classes"; all three stories emerge and shine. 8 pages illus. (Feb.)
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