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
Since the 1920's The New Yorker magazine has ebbed and flowed in and out of the nation's conscience. Read morePublished on Sept. 20 2000 by Walker E. Rowe III
The New Yorker was founded in the Jazz Age and grew to literary proportions, coming to represent the arts of the city and the major participants in these arts. Read morePublished on May 3 2000 by Midwest Book Review
Writing a book about the New Yorker must be one of the world's most complex tasks. The subject is a semi-live, organically strange, symbolically rich, ever shifting protean being... Read morePublished on May 1 2000 by Fernando Melendez
I read the book mostly to read about my favorite writers (Pauline Kael, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross) and their experiences at the New Yorker. I wasn't disappointed. Read morePublished on April 27 2000 by Thomas Stamper
I agree with Jack Olsen, who felt this lengthy book wasn't long enough. I spent several nights reading much later into the night than I should have -- and paid for it the following... Read morePublished on March 10 2000 by Bruce E. Beans
Ben Yagoda has written nearly 500 pages, and when you're finished, you'll wish he'd written 500 more. Read morePublished on March 2 2000 by jack olsen
I've just gotten this book, and bought it on the spot after I noticed various visual references to "The New Yorker" publishing and editorial history, e.g. Read morePublished on Feb. 29 2000 by James K. Rowbotham
I've started reading this book and it is wonderful! and I am not saying this 'cause my dad wrote itPublished on Feb. 19 2000 by Elizabeth