Pictures From an Institution

Here at The New Yorker

by Brendan Gill
Random House, 406 pp., $12.95

Thurber: A Biography

by Burton Bernstein
Dodd, Mead, 532 pp., $15.00

James Thurber
James Thurber; drawing by David Levine

The New Yorker, in spite of appearances, is not a magazine. When E.B. White once tried to resign from its staff, Harold Ross, founder and first editor of The New Yorker, yelled, “You can’t quit. This isn’t a magazine—it’s a Movement.” In another version of the same exchange, Ross is supposed to have said, “This is not a magazine—it’s a cause.” Burton Bernstein, in his painstaking biography of Thurber, echoes the notion as if it were a received truth: “It was a crusade, not a magazine.” Tom Wolfe, in a pair of articles in the Herald Tribune in 1965, said it was not a magazine but a museum and a morgue. And Brendan Gill, in his offhand sequence of memories and anecdotes, evokes a New Yorker that is not a magazine but a precinct of Elysium, the place where good writers go when they die, and where lucky writers go more or less as soon as they graduate from Yale.

The odd thing about these views is their complete convergence. Wolfe, for example, was out to damn The New Yorker for its dullness and respectability, spoke of elderly messenger boys shuffling along sleepy corridors, of an eerie silence pervading the editorial offices, of the preservation of Thurber’s drawings on the walls of his old room:

The room is kept like the Poe shrine in Richmond, Va.; pure Poe, pure Thurber…. The custodians stand around late in the day trying to decide how best to preserve these…well, one means, these things are not scrawls, I don’t care what Thurber would have said. These things are bona fide…murals we have here. Museum! Shrine!

Most of this was fantasy, or “rhetorical showboating,” as Wolfe later called it, an exercise in atmospherics based on local legends and a reading of Thurber’s The Years with Ross. It was done “as a lark,” Wolfe said. The lark was fairly funny, but it was also cheap and nasty, full of ungrounded sneers—what is wrong with preserving drawings?—and Wolfe was soon upbraided by Dwight Macdonald, and by Renata Adler and Gerald Jonas, for his numerous errors of detail. Yet Wolfe couldn’t really have got much wrong, because he wasn’t trying to get much right, except a mood. And Brendan Gill, from inside The New Yorker and with entirely different intentions, thoroughly confirms the gist of Wolfe’s story.

“It is a palimpsest of an office,” Gill writes, “a Dead Sea Scroll, and only a scholar learned in urban débris could do it justice….” This is plainly Wolfe’s museum seen from another angle. Gill tells us that “it is the custom” at The New Yorker for people not to speak to each other in elevators, “as it is the custom for them not to whistle in the corridors.” Nobody I know speaks much in elevators or whistles a great deal in corridors, but it takes someone like Gill, speaking…

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