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About Town: The New Yorker and The World It Made [Hardcover]

Ben Yagoda
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 28 2000
For more than seven decades, The New Yorker has been the embodiment of urban sophistication and literary accomplishment, the magazine where the best work of virtually every prose giant of the century first appeared. With all the authority and elegance such a subject demands, Yagoda tells the fascinating story of the tiny journal that grew into a literary enterprise of epic proportions. Incorporating interviews with more than fifty former and current New Yorker writers, including the late Joseph Mitchell, Roger Angell, Pauline Kael, Calvin Trillin, and Ann Beattie, Yagoda is also the first author to make extensive use of The New Yorker's archives. About Town penetrates the inner workings of The New Yorker as no other book has done, opening a window on a lost age.

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"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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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5.0 out of 5 stars Metamorphosis... May 24 2002
There are at least two ways to view Ben Yagoda's book ABOUT TOWN: 1) as the history of The New Yorker Magazine, how it was conceived and developed and changed over time, and 2) as a social document reflecting its times. The subtitle of the book "and the World it Made" does not seem quite as accurate unless one considers that "world" to be the corporate culture created by the staff led by Ross and Shawn, the two longtime editors who built the magazine. The New Yorker certainly has influenced the world within which it existed along with many other magazines.
Harold Ross, the founder and first editor of the magazine, with the help of Katherine and E.B.White, Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and many other fine editors and writers launched the magazine in the 1920s. The sophisticated and literary focus of the magazine soon captured the fancy of New Yorkers. During the hard days of the depression the magazine actually gained subscribers as readers enjoyed the humorous repartee and cartoons that helped them laugh at their troubles. Many new readers learned of the magazine during WWII as it was handed around the barracks. The GI bill produced many educated readers who remembering their wartime contact with the magazine now subscibed to it. Following WWII, the magazine included more and more "social conscience" articles, for example, John Hershey's essay on "Hiroshima."
Ross died in the early 1950s, and during the fifties under the editorship of William Shawn, the magazine became relatively banal according to Yagoda who says it appealed to stay-at-home wives who enjoyed articles that reminded them of their college days (among other pieces, Mary McCarthy's tales of her Italian travels were featured).
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great History And Principle Profiles Jan. 28 2002
"About Town", by Ben Yagoda chronicles the majority of the 80+ years, "The New Yorker", has been contributing its unique journalistic culture to everyone, including, "The old lady in Debuque". Mr. Yagoda's book stands out from many books that have been offered to readers about the magazine for while he certainly is aware of the contributions the magazine has made for over 8 decades; he does not seem to be in awe of it or the people to the point it affects his writing. He clearly admires the magazine, but this does not stop his including a wealth of information that documents the eccentric personalities that shaped the magazine. Some may not find the notes flattering, but he objectively shows some of the magazines famous quirks without committing the blasphemy of a young Thomas Wolfe.
The list of writers who either became major or occasional contributors, reads like an amalgam of winners of the highest literary awards that have been offered. The list of those names repeatedly rejected expands the list even further. The book contains dozens of examples of the famous rejection letters that often are almost apologetic about turning down a piece of work while always writing in the first person plural. Having a piece selected by, "The New Yorker", was often considered the ultimate indicator that a new writer had arrived, that he or she had entered the pantheon of the magazine's literary legends. This was true even if the work accepted for publication may not have appeared for months, or even several years. The reception of the envelope stating a writer's work had been admitted was all many authors needed to have their work given unique value and cachet, publication was a bonus.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Encore! Nov. 11 2001
Disclaimer: I love The New Yorker. I have been a dedicated subscriber for ten years (and I am only twenty-six), and I read the magazine for years before subscribing under my own name.
Given my disclaimer, perhaps my five-star rating is self-evident. But not necessarily: As a lover of the magazine, I approached this text skeptically. I was interested in an unbiased review, yes, but likely I would have been wounded by a wholeheartedly negative portrayal.
Yagoda loves TNY even more than I do, if that's possible, yet he truthfully approaches his biography of the magazine. The ugliest facts are laid bare, but in a sympathetic whole.
TNY writers, editors, and staff members are lovingly recreated; Yagoda writes so well that I felt I knew these people, I understood these people, and I physically missed them after turning the last page. Like others who have reviewed this book, I wanted more--more, more, more. I felt astonished and sad to have finished the book. Were it a novel, I'd beg for a sequel, even knowing that sequels rarely live up to the original. Even a second-best second-tome would be better than missing the people and the institution that this book brings to life.
Admittedly, TNY readers will love this book vastly more than those unacquainted with its pages. However, if you are even beginning to approach the magazine, you must read this book. You will understand the weekly journal better than you do now, and you will appreciate it far more. I certainly do.
Bravo, Yagoda!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Let Me Count The Ways--- Feb. 5 2001
I have had an ongoing love affair with The New Yorker since I was ten years old. First I read just the cartoons, then the reviews, and finally an obsession with the entire magazine.
Ben Yagoda is the first account I have read that does not have a personal agenda or bias. His research is meticulous and presented in such a lively manner that the reader never feels bombarded with dry facts and statistics. He brings to center stage a fabulous cast: from founder, Harold Ross, A. J. Liebling, E. B. White, James Thurber, Lillian Ross, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger, John Updike to the last "real" New Yorker editor-William Shawn. Mr. Yagoda's talent brings them to life, sets them in the context of The New Yorker, and they greet you from around every corner.
Mr. Yagoda lets us see why and how The New Yorker wielded such a remarkable influence in its heyday from the '30's through the early '60's. The standards set for fact checking, daring fiction, and in-depth "fact" pieces were hard to emulate. I well remember entire issues set aside for arcane subjects. I always gave the prize to Ved Mehta for writing excruciatingly long articles about subjects of which I had absolutely no interest. Yet I eagerly awaited Mehta's biographical sketches. That was part of The New Yorker's charm; they gave their writers the freedom to try different venues. The magazine was famous (or infamous) for their ruthless editing. One of my favorite quoted memos was from Vladimar Nabokov who wasn't so much outraged that The New Yorker had tinkered with his text, but amazed. "Never in my life has such a thing happened." said the bewildered Mr. Nabokov.
"About Town" is a fascinating read that can also be used for a reference book. It is scrupulously indexed and cross-referenced. This is the definitive biography of The New Yorker. Highly recommended.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work of literary criticism and history
Since the 1920's The New Yorker magazine has ebbed and flowed in and out of the nation's conscience. Read more
Published on Sept. 20 2000 by Walker E. Rowe III
5.0 out of 5 stars A "must" for all fans of the New Yorker magazine.
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 more
Published on May 3 2000 by Midwest Book Review
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing feat, by fermed
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 more
Published on May 1 2000 by Fernando Melendez
4.0 out of 5 stars You'll learn a lot
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 more
Published on April 27 2000 by Thomas Stamper
5.0 out of 5 stars Giving Good Weight
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 more
Published on March 10 2000 by Bruce E. Beans
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Biography of a Great Magazine
Ben Yagoda has written nearly 500 pages, and when you're finished, you'll wish he'd written 500 more. Read more
Published on March 2 2000 by jack olsen
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Visual Links to Great Topic
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 more
Published on Feb. 29 2000 by James K. Rowbotham
5.0 out of 5 stars Da Bomb
I've started reading this book and it is wonderful! and I am not saying this 'cause my dad wrote it
Published on Feb. 19 2000 by Elizabeth
5.0 out of 5 stars About a way of life...
I have only started reading this, but so far it is a great account of the history of a magazine that for many people was more than just a weekly habit. Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2000 by Ian M.
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