A round table on American taste

About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made By Ben Yagoda Scribner 478 pp., $30

Some Times in America: And a Life in a Year at the New Yorker By Alexander Chancellor Carroll & Graf 309 pp., $25

Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross Edited by Thomas Kunkel Modern Library 428 pp., $26.95

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker Edited by David Remnick Random House 530 pp., $26.95

Gone: The last days of The New Yorker By Renata Adler Simon & Schuster 252 pp., $25

Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker Edited by David Remnick Random House 480 pp., $26.95

The New Yorker 75th Anniversary Cartoon Collection Edited by Bob Mankoff Pocket Books 291 pp., $40

Perhaps no magazine has played a bigger role in forming an American sense of taste and style than The New Yorker. Founded 75 years ago, in the heyday of the Jazz Age, The New Yorker became a genuine cultural institution. It may not have promoted all of the century's greatest or most original writers and thinkers, it may not even have represented all of the rich diversity of the city for which it was named, but it still served as a lodestar for American journalism.

Some of the elements that made it so special are qualities we may now take for granted. But as Ben Yagoda's fascinating and perceptive history of the magazine makes clear in About Town, the handful of men and women who created The New Yorker had a strong - if somewhat open-ended - idea of what they were trying to do.

To begin with, a feature so obvious it is generally overlooked, the magazine was designed to appeal equally to men and women. Although its founding editor and shaping spirit, Harold Ross, was a rough-diamond kind of guy from the West, his colleague Katharine Angell, a sensitive, cultivated Easterner with a gift for encouraging literary talent, played an equally important part in making the magazine what it was.

The New Yorker, according to the prospectus Ross wrote in 1924, would be "sophisticated," but not "highbrow" or "radical." It would be witty, but "more than a jester." It would go behind the scenes, print the "whole truth without fear and without favor," but would "not deal in scandal for the sake of scandal." Not quite certain exactly where the magazine was headed, Ross nonetheless had a sure touch when it came to quality. For its many readers, The New Yorker all but defined the word "civilized." Ross's forthright personality and his extraordinary talents as an editor can be glimpsed in his letters, a hefty selection of which has been assembled by his biographer, Thomas Kunkel, in a book called Letters From the Editor.

Yagoda draws not only on Ross's letters, but on a huge range of archival material to create a richly detailed, highly animated account of the magazine's history. Unlike Brendan Gill, Ved Mehta, E.J. Kahn, or Lillian Ross, who have written memoirs of their experiences there, Yagoda is not himself affiliated with The New Yorker. This gives his history a welcome balance and objectivity.

While other sophisticated magazines of the 1920s, like Smart Set and Vanity Fair, sought a nationwide readership by refusing to tie themselves to a specific locale, The New Yorker explicitly focused on New York. Yet it managed to win readers all over the country. Although Ross boldly declared he wanted to appeal to the sophisticated urban reader and not "the little old lady from Dubuque," The New Yorker appealed to readers everywhere. It is instructive to realize that a magazine that embodied "class" enjoyed unprecedented success in the 1930s and 1940s, the era that was being heralded (or, in some quarters, fearfully denounced) as the age of the masses.

The New Yorker became home to many gifted writers, including E.B. White (who married Katharine Angell), James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara, S.J. Perelman, Lewis Mumford, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Edmund Wilson, Rebecca West, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, and John Updike. Text reigned. In other magazines, articles were cut or stretched to fit the available space; The New Yorker arranged itself around the writing.

Graphics also played an important role, and the magazine's unique contribution to 20th-century culture, The New Yorker cartoon, unleashed the diverse talents of Thurber, Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams, Whitney Darrow, Charles Saxon, William Hamilton, Saul Steinberg, William Steig, Ed Koren, Roz Chast, Jack Ziegler, and Bob Mankoff, to name just a few. Enthusiasts will doubtless delight in - and probably quibble over - the selection by Mankoff in The New Yorker 75th Anniversary Cartoon Collection.

Two other famous New Yorker traditions - short fiction and long nonfiction character profiles - are celebrated respectively in Wonderful Town and Life Stories, both compiled by the magazine's current editor, David Remnick (see interview above). While his choices among the profiles seem reasonably representative, his choices among the stories are disappointing.

As Yagoda's book shows us, The New Yorker's combination of high standards and openness to new forms and approaches enabled it not only to adapt to the climate of World War II, but to provide some of the war's most honest and thoughtful coverage. Departing from precedent, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey's shattering portrait of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the first atomic bomb.

Managing editor William Shawn, who later took over Ross's job after the latter's death in 1952, was particularly responsive to writers treating serious issues: Rachel Carson's seminal work, "Silent Spring," made its debut in The New Yorker, as did James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" and Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem."

Soft-spoken, introverted, formal, intense, self-effacing, yet oddly controlling, Shawn was utterly different from Ross. But, although the magazine reflected those differences, becoming less sprightly, more sober, its status as a cultural institution remained. Yet some critics began to notice a tendency toward blandness, gentility, and fussiness.

Yagoda has chosen to end his history in 1987, when editor in chief Shawn was summarily dismissed by publisher Si Newhouse: "When Shawn made his exit, the curtain came down." A brief epilogue tracks the magazine's history since then. The story is not a happy one, certainly not as journalist, novelist, and former New Yorker writer Renata Adler tells it in her acridly contentious but absorbingly readable memoir, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker. Adler sees the story of the magazine's and Shawn's downfall as a classic tragedy. "Moral certitude" and "absence of self-doubt" led to blind overconfidence and lack of self-criticism.

Shawn's greatest strengths as an editor were also the source of his later weaknesses. Adler's portrait of the magazine under Shawn's immediate successor, former Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, is far more devastating, even spiteful, but to witness the dissolution of a beloved institution can induce this kind of anger.

Readers hungry for still further developments - and a more genial tone - can peruse Alexander Chancellor's Some Times in America: And a Life in a Year at the New Yorker, a lively and amusing, if not exactly hard-hitting, account of a British journalist's experiences writing the magazine's Talk of the Town column under the editorship of Tina Brown.

In recent years, The New Yorker has been criticized for abandoning its commitment to its former high standards. Yet, despite its pursuit of popularity at any price, it failed to make a profit. Ironically, the history of The New Yorker offers proof of the maxim that you can indeed do well by doing good. Fearing that the pressures of the business side of the magazine might inhibit the integrity of his writers and editors, Ross imposed an ironclad separation between his editorial and business departments. Yet despite its refusal to cater to advertisers, The New Yorker attracted a large and devoted readership that made it equally attractive to advertisers. Clearly, paying more attention to editing line by line and less attention to the bottom line paid off.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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