Parajournalism II: Wolfe and The New Yorker

Newspapers are only as good as the ideas and information they succeed in conveying. And this means not only putting facts down on paper, but doing so in such a way that they get off the paper and, in a meaningful and orderly fashion, into the minds of the readers.” When I read these admirable sentiments in an editorial in the New York Herald-Tribune of April 19th last, I was puzzled because the day before the Tribune’s Sunday magazine had published the second of two articles on The New Yorker by Tom Wolfe which seemed to me extreme examples of the opposite: their ideas bogus, their information largely misinformation, their facts often non-facts and the style in which they were communicated to the reader neither orderly nor meaningful.

Was this an Aesopian apology by some of the Tribune’s editors, I wondered, for what their colleagues on the Sunday edition had just been up to? Or was the emphasis on getting facts “off the paper and into the minds of the readers”—or rather into their cortical reflexes, for Wolfe’s bazooka aims lower than the cerebrum—a justification of his kind of reportage, so much more readable and, hopefully, sellable than the fact-bound approach of the Tribune’s great solid successful competitor. Whatever its intent, the editorial suggests the Tribune’s dilemma, caught between deficits and respectability. “Who Says a Good Newspaper Has to be Dull?” its ads used to ask, with a sideglance at the Times. Dropping the first adjective isn’t the answer.

Reviewing a collection of Tom Wolfe’s articles in this paper last August, I considered them as examples of a new kind of reporting that has become widespread, namely, “parajournalism,” a bastard form that has it both ways, “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” The articles on The New Yorker, which were not in the book, carry the genre to its ultimate of illegitimacy, or what I hope is such: the free-form shaping of an Image in the manner of a press agent with fewer inhibitions about accuracy than obtains in the more reputable public relations firms. I think it worth examining them in some detail.

The first article is headed: “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”—a jocose echo of Bernarr MacFaddea’s Daily Graphic, whose “bogusity” and “aesthetique du schlock” Wolfe admires: “But by god the whole thing had style.” Or of the extant National Enquirer (“Jimmy Cagney Admits: I HATE GUNS”). Some interpret the whole thing as a spoof—the author when pressed on humdrum matters of fact edges in this direction—but the theory breaks down because there are distinct traces of research. A parodist is licensed to invent and Tom Wolfe is not the man to turn down any poetic licentiousness that is going. He takes the middle course, shifting gears between fact and fantasy, spoof and reportage, until nobody knows which end is, at the moment, up.

Omerta! [he begins] Sealed lips! Sealed lips, ladies and gentlemen! Our thing!…. For weeks the editors of The New Yorker have been circulating a warning among their employes saying that some one is out to write an article about The New Yorker. This warning tells them, remember: Omerta. Your vow of silence….

One wouldn’t even have known about the warning…except that they put it in writing, in memos. They have a compulsion in The New Yorker offices, at 25 West 43rd Street, to put everything in writing. They have boys over there on the 19th and 20th floors, the editorial offices, practically caroming off each other…because of the fantastic traffic in memos. They just call them boys. “Boy, will you take this, please….” Actually, a lot of them are old men with starched white collars…[who] were boys when they started on the job, but the thing is, The New Yorker is 40 years old…[and] they all have seniority, like Pennsylvania Railroad conductors.

The paper the thousands of messages are on is a terrific rag-fiber paper…. Manuscripts are typed on maize-yellow bond, bud green is for blah-blah-blah, fuchsia demure is for blah-blah-blah, Newboy blue is for blah-blah-blah, and this great cerise, a kind of mild cherry red, is for urgent messages…

The name and address are correct. The rest is parajournalism.

  • No warning, verbal or written, reached me, nor do I recall any such warning in the fifteen years I’ve had an office as a staff writer, nor has inquiry turned up any one else who does. If Wolfe saw a copy of this (alleged) memo, it is odd, or would be in real journalism, that he doesn’t quote from it. Odder was an admission he made, a few days after his first New Yorker piece appeared, when he and Clay Felker, his editor at the Sunday Tribune, were interviewed on Tex McCrary’s radio program. On the whole, it was a gemütlich session. McCrary: “I felt that Tom Wolfe…used the feather end of the quill rather gently, and tried to tickle.” Wolfe: “That’s right, we were just funning.” Felker: “The New Yorker has pretty much always bored me. It is not my kind of journalism.” McCrary: “Yeah, I’ve got to confess to me it’s the late afternoon of a faun.” But there was one awkward moment. McCrary: “You said in your piece, and I couldn’t tell whether you were writing with tongue in cheek or not, that Mr. Shawn put out a notice that everybody who works for The New Yorker don’t…talk to anybody from the Trib, in effect. Was that true or were you just kidding?” Wolfe: “Well, there were plenty of warnings going around over there. I’m sure he never actually wrote a warning that specific, but I think as the 40th anniversary of the magazine came up this year…they began to reinforce quite heavily their long-standing policy of discouraging articles about themselves.” Tex should have kept his big square mouth shut. Asking a writer like Wolfe to distinguish between what is “true” and what is “just kidding” is looking for trouble. If Shawn didn’t write a warning “that specific,” then how specific? Did he write anything? Does Wolfe know anything, really, beyond his inference (“I think”) from the undeniable fact that 1965 is the 40th anniversary of The New Yorker?

  • If the editors have any compulsion about putting “everything in writing,” it is negative; they avoid memos with neurotic consistency and are addicted to vocal communication, by phone or face to face. In the six years I was a staff writer on Fortune, two or three front-office memos came to my desk every week; Luce rather prided himself on his inter-office style—“Let neophyte X remember the log-cabin spirit that founded this enterprise,” he once wrote, denying the petition of a newly hired writer for a desk of his own. But it’s dull here, maybe two or three memos a year and on matters like group insurance, no cosa nostra stuff.

  • Wolfe is comical about those aged office “boys” with their “kindly old elder bison shuffles shoop-shooping along” as they deliver stacks of phantom memos. But in fact all but one of the office boys are in or just out of their teens. (Nobody ever calls them “Boy!”—he must have seen The Front Page on the Late Show.) The exception, who doesn’t wear starched collars, came here not in 1925 or 1935 or 1945 but in 1953, after retiring from service at the University Club. He collects the mail efficiently and, pace the author’s geriatric obsession, without any visible shoop-shuffling.

  • That “terrific rag-fiber paper” is not used for memos or anything else, useful as such a detail is for creating Wolfe’s atmosphere of prissy elegance. Manuscript paper used to be “maize-yellow” (or orange) but was changed to white a year before Wolfe’s articles appeared. Those other precious color distinctions don’t exist. “Blah-blah-blah” is what journalists, real ones, put in their first drafts meaning look it up. Wolfe lets it go at that, his motto being Si non è vero, è ben trovato—If it isn’t true, it should be. That “unit tasks” are as mythical as the nutty colors he invented for them—“Newboy blue,” “fuchsia demure”—is immaterial in this kind of parajournalism. He is for once right about cerise being used for Rush messages but since all messages for some reason are cerise-Rush this morsel of actuality proves to be a distinction without a difference. And why is “cerise” italicised and why is it “great”? Everything has to be some color.

I apologize for dwelling on trivia but I see no other way of dealing with a rhetoric that builds up, with many little “knowing” factual touches, a general impression which only those with some acquaintance with the subject can detect as unknowing and unfactual. Such readers are always in a negligible minority, else how could our big circulation press exist? Also working for the parajournalist is the tendency of the uninformed, or almost everybody, to accept as truth whatever is boldly asserted as such. Hitler observed that most demagogues are timid and so venture only small lies which are found out because the masses, also petty-minded, can see through the retail lying they do themselves; but the masses will accept “the big lie” because they cannot imagine any one daring enough to try it. The late Senator McCarthy showed this weakness is not limited to Germans. The difference between Tom Wolfe and such types is that he doesn’t tell lies, big or small, since lying is a conscious process, recognizing the distinction between what is and what it would be convenient to assume is. He seems to be honestly unaware of the distinction between fact and fabrication. You might call him a sincere demagogue.

His style uses devices of suggestion, powerful as they are crude, which transform the subject so violently as to make it impossible to tell what it looked like in its pristine, or unparajournalized, state. These devices range from exclamation marks, italics, and pregnant dots in the epistolary style of Queen Victoria and our own debutantes (what he can….suggest with a few well-placed….….’s!) through a vivid terminology of invented terms like “aluminicron suits” and “‘big lunch’ ties” combined with obscure anatomical words like “ischium” to the grand finale—everybody on stage, please!—which has Shawn musing over the 40th anniversary:

One can envision William Shawn patting the arm of one of his beautifully, not obscenely, beautifully stuffed chairs in his Fifth Avenue apartment, pat pat pat pat pat pat. Pat, he can keep time with one of these…Dixieland records there on the hi-fi…. Bix is right in the middle there, in the middle of “I Can’t Get Started”…. And—the final brick in the indestructible structure!—one can afford an exclamation point in the privacy of certitude!—his successor, it is said, is Roger Angell. Heritage! Genes! Harmony! Ross! Roger Angell is managing editor under Shawn just as Shawn was managing editor under Ross….and—the Ross cachet that man has. Angell is the son of Katherine Angell and the stepson of E. B. White. Katherine Angell was one of the original staff members…It all locks, assured, into place, the future, and….toot toot boopy clap City Lights pat pat pat Bix! Bix hits that incredible high one, the one he died on, popping a vessel in his temporal fossa, bleeding into his squash, drowning on the bandstand, like Caruso. That was the music of Harold Ross’ lifetime, the palmy days….and here, on that phonograph, those days are preserved…. Done and done! Preserved! Shawn, God bless you! Pat pat pat pat pat pat.

The End. It seems impossible but Wolfe has managed to get wrong the only two facts underlying all that echolalia. Shawn may or may not, in the privacy, of his certitude, have picked Roger Angell as his successor, but Angell is now one of several fiction editors and not managing editor, a post that has been unfilled since Shawn left it. And I am informed that Bix Beiderbecke died in 1931 (in bed, of pneumonia) four years before “I Can’t Get Started” was written. He might have been thinking of Bunny Berigan who made two famous recordings of the song—except that Berigan also died in bed, of pneumonia.

Well all I can say is that it is a great system they have going up there,” Wolfe writes, having set the stage, creating by unfacts and parafacts his tone poem of The Land of the Walking Dead, absurdly ritualized as Mandarin China, solidly ossified as Pharaohnic Egypt complete with (tiny) mummies. “But—nevertheless, people talked. These…. [his dots] people talked!” Doubtless, since the omerta Vow of Silence is a myth, but either they were putting him on or they were remarkably poor observers. The errors are of two kinds: innocent and tendentious. The former is the kind of mistake any sloppy reporter might make, such as omitting the third editorial floor, the 18th, giving the wrong address for Shawn’s home at the time of the Loeb-Leopold murder and the wrong floor for his present apartment, and stating the change of printers took place “several years ago” instead of one year before his articles appeared. Since no special point depends on any of these errors, I call them “innocent,” due to mere ignorance and sloth. By “tendentious” mistakes, I mean ones that help the picture of The New Yorker he is trying to create, I mean the uncritical acceptance of whatever rumors, unverified impressions, anonymous anecdotes, and old wives’ tales fit his thesis. They are so abundant that the Augean labor of cleaning them up must be limited to a few of the more egregious:

  • …Only the people who were working here when Ross was alive may keep offices in the old donnish clutter, all these things on the walls and so forth…. Nobody else may put all those curios up on their walls…nothing on the walls but New Yorker covers. That is, of course, understood?” I arrived post-Ross, my office is cluttered, and I have all sorts of pictures on my walls. An examination of other post-Ross writers’ offices turned up not one New Yorker cover—whereever did he get that idea?—and many decorations similar to mine.

  • Ross always called the stories in the magazine ‘casuals,’ because that was what they were supposed to be, casual. He didn’t want a lot of short stories full of literary striving, vessel-popping, hungry-breasty suffering…” Short stories have never been called “casuals.” The term means a light article, personal in style and often reminiscent—what used to be called a familiar essay.

  • The chief editor can—and is expected to—rewrite the piece any way he thinks will improve it. It is not unusual for the writer not to be consulted about it; the editor can change it without him, something that rarely happens at Time…. [where] the writer always makes the changes himself, if possible. Practically every writer for The New Yorker, staff or free lance, goes through this routine, with the exception of a few people, like Lillian Ross, who are edited by Shawn himself.” It is not only usual but routine for the writer to be shown all proposed editorial changes and to be given plenty of chance to argue about them if he disagrees. Nor is it true that a few privileged writers are always edited by Shawn nor that they escape the normal routine. Some of my articles have been edited by Shawn, some not, but the procedure is the same. I agree that a fault of The New Yorker is a tendency to over-edit, as a fault of Clay Felker’s New York is the opposite, but the writer is consulted on all changes. Wolfe’s reference to Time must be “just funning.” I’ve written for Time and the only respect the editors showed for my prose was to leave my name off the final product that emerged from the assembly line.

  • Part of Shawn’s job as embalmer is actual physical preservation. For example, there is The Thurber Room…” Wolfe thinks it preciosity thatsome drawings Thurber made on a wall in one of his offices have not been painted over: “…murals we have here. Museum! Shrine!” Those “people who…talked” gave him a specially bum steer on this museum-shrine, of whose existence I hadn’t previously been aware. He states: (a) the drawings were done “with a big crayon” because Thurber’s sight was failing; (b) the room is “right next to the men’s room because it was hard for Thurber to navigate the halls”; (c) the subjects are “nutty football players or something and a bunch of nuns [and] some weird woodland animals” (I’ll never dig his italics—does he mean football players are nuttier than, say, baseball players? Also note the usual fire-escape clause, “or something”); (d) the Shrine was preserved by mortician Shawn; and (e) it is now occupied by “a writer…[who] understands…nobody touches those walls, no other pictures of any sort go up on those walls.” The facts are: (a) the drawings were done with a thin pencil; (b) the Shrine is next to the ladies’ not the men’s room; (c) there are no nuns and there is a superb self-caricature which anyone but a Wolfe informant would have spotted; (d) the drawings were saved from being painted over not by Shawn but by the room’s present occupant, William Mangold, who (e) is not a writer but an editor and who apparently doesn’t understand, since he has put up on those sacred walls—the drawings occupy a space about ten by four feet on one of them—a bulletin board, two prints, a large calendar, and a larger map. And what if it had been Shawn who had saved these drawings from urban renewal? I don’t see how this would make him an embalmer. Our metropolitan Attila, Robert Moses, is an elderly version of Tom Wolfe; both are depressingly young at heart, both seem to feel somehow threatened by time, age, the past.

  • Several years ago….they ‘leaded out’ the lines [of type] a fraction of an inch, put more white space between them. This made the ads—beautiful lush ads!—stand out more…” The space between the lines is the same now as it was then. He is deceived by an optical illusion: a new font of type was recently installed which makes a clearer, thinner impression than the old font, blunted with use.

  • …”Getting hired at The New Yorker is….like fraternity rushing. A person’s attitude is important. Everybody wants to know if the candidate will fit in, if he has the makings of a genuine…[his dots] hierophant….an attitude of—well, humility about The New Yorker and its history.” In the December, 1937, Partisan Review I published a ten-page critique of The New Yorker that was not marked by humility. Its title was “Laugh and Lie Down,” its line was: “The New Yorker is the last of the great family journals. Its inhibitions stretch from sex to the class struggle. It can be read aloud in mixed company without calling a blush to the cheek of the most virtuous banker.” A few months later Shawn asked me to do an article. I did three and in 1951, I became, at his invitation, a staff writer.

  • Perhaps I am an exception to the (alleged) hierophant-sycophant employment policy, though my neighbors on the 18th floor don’t strike me as especially humble about the magazine and its history. This is a matter of judgment, but my eyes tell me it is untrue that “lately The New Yorker has settled upon small people, small physically that is, who can preserve through quite a number of years the tweedy, thatchy, humble style of dress they had in college.” Why a small person (“physically”) can preserve a collegiate style of dress longer than a large one is not explained, but in any case recent arrivals have been of assorted sizes. Of the three he mentions by name, one is on the tall side and one is gigantic.

Everything leads back to one man—Shawn. William Shawn—editor of one of the most powerful magazines in America. The Man Nobody Knows.” Except Tom Wolfe, who explains Shawn’s (alleged) personality and thus the (alleged) nature of the magazine he edits by an (alleged) experience in his boyhood that was (allegedly) traumatic: his (alleged) narrow escape from being murdered by Loeb and Leopold. These (allegations) are, in the boldness with which they are asserted, the ease with which they can be refuted, and the scope of the inferences drawn from them, unique in my reading of the American press, aside from certain political fantasias. Extrapolations from zero.

In this story, one of the stories told repeatedly,” Wolfe begins, “it is May 21, 1924, and Richard Loeb is crouching in the weeds with Nathan Leopold, and he says, ‘Nathan, look! How about William Shawn—’ ” The words beginning “It is May 21, 1924” are printed in bold italics at the top of an otherwise blank column—New York’s typography is as advanced as its parajournalism, lots of white space in both—as an added kickeroo for the customers, who assume there must be something “in” such a big headline with the exact date nailing it down. But then, Wolfe daringly reverses his field. “Only they don’t tell it too well,” he scrupulously adds, though he doesn’t go so far as to tell who told “this story” or what if anything they knew about it. “In the first place, Loeb didn’t call Leopold ‘Nathan.’ He called him ‘Babe’ or something like that. And they would have never squatted in the grass. They had those great clothes on, they were social, one understands?”

One understands also that the metteur en scène is having it both ways, three ways in fact, first suggesting Shawn was the chosen victim of Loeb-Leopold, then, with an air of large candor worthy of Jeff Peters in O. Henry’s The Gentle Grafter, pooh-poohing this particular story, for all the typographical fanfare. But on such flimsy (“called him ‘Babe’ or something like that”) and whimsical (“those great clothes“) grounds as to suggest he is leaning over backward to be fair, and finally, having established his nothing-up-the-sleeves good faith, re-reversing his field with a sober paragraph—only two words italicised for emphasis in forty-eight lines—whose first sentence strikes the note of austere veridity, Truth naked and unadorned: “What the records show, actually, in the Cook County (Chicago) Criminal Court and at the Harvard School, now the Harvard-St. George School, is the following: Shawn—then called Chon—and Bobby Franks were classmates at the Harvard School for Boys that year.” (He means schoolmates and not classmates since in the next sentence he states that Shawn was sixteen and Franks fourteen.) The nub of “the following” and the peg on which hangs the theory that Shawn-Chon was on the Loeb-Leopold murder list is: “They went over about six names, the first one of which was ‘William.’ The court records do not give the last name…. They dropped the idea of ‘William’ only because they had a personal grudge against him and somebody might remember that.”

This looks fishy on the face of it. Wolfe or somebody he employed must have gone through the Harvard School classbooks since he prints young Shawn’s photograph from it, but he doesn’t say whether any other boys in the classes that included Shawn and Franks were named “William.” (Two were.) And if he did examine the court record, it is vague, even for his kind of research, not to tell whether the other potential victims were also identified only by their first names.

There may be clues to this reticence. The Clerk of the Cook County Criminal Court says no transcript of the trial record is on file there (though a stenographic record may exist on file), nor can he recall any reporter inquiring about one in recent years. There does exist, however, in the possession of an attorney connected with later developments in the case, a nine-volume transcript entitled “IN THE CRIMINAL COURT OF COOK COUNTY/AT THE JULY TERM, A.D. 1924/PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS VS. NATHAN LEOPOLD, JR., AND RICHARD LOEB/GEN. NOS. 33623-33624.” Six hours of searching for “William” through the 4,713 pages of the record yielded zero. The names of a number of what the defendants airily called “prospects” are given, including four students at the Harvard School, but none of them was named “William” and none of their last names, which were recorded in each case, was “Shawn” or “Chon.”

I deduce therefore, my dear Watson, that Wolfe has some other source. The only “William” I’ve found is in Maureen McKernan’s The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb (Plymouth Court Press, 1924). “In November, 1923…” she quotes, or seems to, from a report by two defense psychiatrists, Drs. Bowman and Hulbert, “[Loeb] was angry at a certain youth called William and…suggested they kidnap William for ransom, and incidentally kill him…They gave up the idea of kidnapping this particular person…[because he] was too large and strong, and they also knew that he would be out of town, away at school.” If this is Wolfe’s “William,” how can he also be his “little Billy Chon” whom Wolfe describes as neither big nor strong, and as being right in town attending the Harvard School? He gives Loeb-Leopold’s “specifications” as “a small and therefore manageable teen-age boy, from the Harvard School, with wealthy parents…” which is tailored to order for young Shawn but sits loosely on Miss McKernan’s “William.” 1

The Bowman-Hulbert Report, both as it appears in Volume 9 and as it is given by Miss McKernan, states that the November, 1923, “prospect” (whom she calls “William”) was picked because Loeb disliked him and was dropped because he was too big and was “away at school.” But Wolfe does not give those reasons, which would exclude Shawn; he gives another, which doesn’t: “They dropped the idea of ‘William’ only because they had a personal grudge against him, and somebody might remember that.” In his Cabinet at the Tribune, Dr. Wolfe (Ph.D., American Studies, Yale) has antisynthesized a great rich buzzing confusion of discordant tenses—the past is not congenial to him, and he keeps getting things mixed up—and fragments of data that don’t fit together. His “William” is a hippogriff, a cameleopard botched together out of two incompatible creatures: the definite, single “prospect” of the fall of 1923, six months before the murder, who was big, strong, nineteen, out of town and disliked by Loeb; and the amorphous, fluctuating group of “prospects” who were later substituted for him precisely because they were his opposite in every way: small, weak, young, in town, not disliked by the murderers. “The plan by this time [early May, 1924] had changed…” the psychiatrists state. “It had been decided to secure any suitable young boy, mainly because he would be easiest to handle, and to select him without any emotion of dislike…They considered half a dozen boys, any one of whom would do….” As for Wolfe’s “William” being “first”: if any name was “first,” in the sense of being in danger, it was not the shadowy “William” nor the real Shawn (who was not even interrogated by the police) but John Levinson, whom Wolfe doesn’t mention although his name appears throughout the record—he took the stand as a prosecution witness—as the victim selected the day before the murder. Levinson was very small and weak indeed—a nine-year-old fourth-grader at the Harvard School. When they missed him on his way home from school, they settled for Bobby Franks as a target of opportunity.

So there seems to be nothing in it. But suppose there was, suppose “William” had been the future editor of The New Yorker, what follows? Nothing much, I would say. But Tom Wolfe is a “must have” historian: “[He] must have felt as if the intellectual murderers…had fixed their clinical eyes upon him at some point…. How could anybody in God’s world be safe if there were people like Leopold and Loeb going around killing people just for the…[his dots] aesthetics of the perfect crime. The whole story, and others about Shawn, supposedly help explain why Shawn is so…[his dots] retiring, why he won’t allow interviews,…why it pains him to ride elevators, go through tunnels, get cooped up—why he remains anonymous, as they say, and slips The New Yorker out each week from behind a barricade of…[his dots] pure fin de siècle back-parlor horsehair stuffing.” A record in the psychiatric standing broad jump, amateur division.

Wolfe’s polemic is sometimes justified, on the sauce-for-the-gander principle, by the fact that The New Yorker has run articles that were highly displeasing to their subjects, such as Wolcott Gibbs’s parody profile of Luce, the series on Walter Winchell and on the Readers’ Digest, maybe even some of my own things. But such articles were in prose, not Wolfese, so the reader could see where reporting ended and interpretation began; they were seriously researched and checked, the facts were facts; and they didn’t go in for amateur psychoanalysis. It didn’t occur to me that a psychobiography of Dr. Mortimer J. Adler was necessary to a critique of his Great Books set any more than in 1937 I had thought of rummaging around in the private life of Ross to explain what I didn’t like about his magazine. The printed record seemed to provide plenty of evidence. Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that Wolfe’s psychological inferences from the non-fact of young Shawn’s involvement in the Loeb-Leopold case are correct, it was gratuitously cruel to rake up this alleged—and indeed, mythical—boyhood trauma, since Shawn’s record as an editor can be evaluated without it.

He is self-effacing, kind, quiet, dedicated, an efficient man, courtly, refined, considerate, humble and—Shawn uses this quiet business like a maestro.” Anti-alchemy: golden virtues reduced to leaden hypocrisies. I have found Shawn as an editor to be in fact kind, considerate, polite, self-effacing, etc. But Wolfe’s thesis requires that these qualities be interpreted as subtle ploys for domination.2 His evidence is two anecdotes which, as is his practice, are attributed to no specific source and so are long in the telling since they need rhetorical beefing-up to conceal their factual emaciation. The first has Shawn trudging through a snowstorm at three A.M. to an un-named writer’s home where, with three inches of Pecksniffian apologies, he pulls an overdue manuscript out of the typewriter and scuttles off in mingy triumph: “Floonk, the door closes. Quiet! Shawn wins.” The other is a seven-inch free-form cadenza about an aspiring contributor, also anonymous, who thoughtlessly lit a cigarette during an interview, was embarrassed to find no ashtray (Shawn is a non-smoker) and was reduced to a jelly of malaise when the great editor ducked out with two inches of apologies—this time in the ‘umble style of Uriah Heep, an ecstasy of sly servility—and brought back an empty Coca Cola bottle which for minutely described reasons proved to be unsuitable as an ashtray. The first story is out of character—Shawn is if anything too permissive a boss—and the second is improbable since I know, as a smoker, that there is always an ashtray on his desk. But they are amusingly told and certainly expose that maestro-of-humility bit. That is, they would expose it, if only…

In Part Two, Wolfe moves from reportage into literary criticism. Maybe I’ve been too hard on him as a reporter. A sensible critique of The New Yorker would be useful for there is much to criticize. Many of the complaints I made in Partisan Review still seem to me valid: the fiction, with exceptions, tends to be superficial, smoothly genteel, and is often vitiated by “what Lenin called ‘bourgeois sentimentality,”’ to quote our author at his most chic-scholarly—I wonder if he knows Lenin was referring to Beethoven; that the critical departments are still weak; and that the magazine in general, again with notable exceptions, continues to be formularized and predictable. “Quite deliberately, they prune their talents into a certain shape, and if this means extensive intellectual amputations, so much the worse for the intellect. The magazine has its ‘tone,’ to which contributors keep with a faithful ear. It is the tone of a cocktail party at which the guests are intelligent but well-bred. No subjects are taboo so long as they are ‘amusing.’ But as any experienced hostess knows, too earnest handling rubs off the bloom. Moderation in all things, including humor…. Its editors would have considered Mark Twain too crude and Heine too highbrow for their purposes. Between reality and its readers The New Yorker interposes a decent veil which would be rent by any immoderate inspiration on its writers’ part.” Shawn’s changes since he took over from Ross have made the magazine weightier and more thoughtful, but I think this impression of its general tone, from my 1937 article, is still accurate.

Wolfe’s attack is more in the kamikaze style—after all he was thirty-three when he wrote it while I was thirty-one when I wrote mine. His central propositions are: (1) Shawn is “the museum curator, the mummifier, the preserverin-amber, the smiling embalmer….for Harold Ross’s New Yorker magazine.” And (2) the Ross tradition wasn’t much anyway: “…For 40 years [The New Yorker] has maintained a strikingly low level of literary achievement.”

(1) “Do we have to run that in our funny little magazine?” Ross used to object when his managing editor pressed on him some manuscript he considered “heavy.” For Shawn began to change the Ross formula long before he became editor. The celebrated war reportage by the late A.J. Liebling and others was his doing, as was the famous issue devoted wholly to John Hersey’s Hiroshima. (Even Wolfe has heard about that one.) Ross’s “funny little magazine” of humor, satire, parody, and short, “light” pieces—the early profiles were actually profiles, quick sketches of a personality in two or three thousand words as against the present full-length portraits with the background landscape often obscuring the sitter—has shifted its emphasis to elaborately researched reportage and to what Ross would have grumbled at as “intellectual stuff.” The different temperaments of the two editors were responsible, also the difference between the pre-war and the post-war periods. By 1940 Ross, Benchley, Thurber, White, Dorothy Parker and the other original “New Yorker wits” found themselves in a less clement atmosphere. Shawn’s new formula did for the magazine what the New Deal did for capitalism—made enough changes to keep it going; like Roosevelt, he was neither a revolutionary nor a Hooverian mummifier. But Dr. Tom Wolfe (Ph.D., American Studies) doesn’t dig the past: it’s so…past. When he writes “Ross started The New Yorker in 1925, and despite the depression it was a terrific success,” one wonders when he thinks the Depression started, also whether he knows that the magazine was a terrific failure for its first two years and survived only because Raoul Fleischmann added $500,000 to his original stake of $25,000. His cultural history is equally dubious. He thinks that among New York sophisticates of the middle Twenties “the model was English Culture,” that “The New Yorker was never more than a slavish copy of Punch” and that, therefore, “The literati in American took to it like they were dying of thirst” and “No magazine in America ever received such literary acclaim before.” The last statement may be explained by ignorance of the nineteenth-century Atlantic and Harper’s and the twentieth-century Dial and Little Review—all those back issues!—but it’s hard to see where he got the notion that the model was English culture as reflected in Punch. Ross and the other founding fathers at the Algonquin Round Table were all very American, urban, wiseguy types, Menckenian scoffers at the provincial booboisie—the early issues are obsessed with the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee, making tireless fun of Bryan’s attempt to refute Darwin and Darrow with Bible texts—and it’s impossible to imagine them being impressed by Punch, the resolutely philistine organ of the county gentry, who are the British equivalent, culturally, of our own Bible Belt.3 Indeed, the imitation went the other way: when Malcolm Muggeridge was editor of Punch, he tried to revamp it along New Yorker lines.

(2) To demonstrate The New Yorker’s “strikingly low level of literary achievement,” Wolfe compares it with Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. His method is simple: any eminent writer who has ever been published in Esquire or the Post becomes “an Esquire (or Post) writer” while “a New Yorker writer” means only one who has been chiefly identified with that magazine. He lists twenty-eight names, including Pound, Camus and Thomas Mann, and adds: “…that is not a list of New Yorker writers but of Esquire writers.” Another twenty-two, including Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, are “…a list not of New Yorker writers but of Saturday Evening Post writers.” To call Pound “an Esquire writer” is like describing Nabokov as “a Playboy writer” because a novel of his is now being serialized there, or Edgar Allan Poe as “a Godey’s Lady’s Book writer” because he wrote “The Literati of New York” for it together with numerous reviews and “Marginalia.” That Wolfe refrained from listing “the Playboy writers”—a weighty roster that includes, in the current issue, Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, and Mortimer J. Adler—suggests he may have suspected the fallacy, if not the vulgarity, of this method of comparative criticism. It would have proved and indeed over-proved his case. No serious writer can be described in terms of the magazines he writes for since his virtue is that he is precisely not reducible to an editorial formula. It would be more accurate to say that Ross’s New Yorker was “a Benchley (or a Thurber) magazine” than that they were “New Yorker writers,” nor does the fact that Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism has for the last twenty-five years been largely confined to that magazine make him “a New Yorker writer.”

Wolfe gives no criteria for his postal-clerk pigeon-holing of writers. One must be priority of publication since he classifies J. D. Salinger as “an Esquire writer” because two early stories were published there. By this standard, Bellow would be a Partisan Review writer, Singer a Commentary writer, Pound a New Age writer, and most of the more distinguished names on his lists would have to be assigned to the “little magazines” that first welcomed and encouraged them. A more significant criterion is frequency of publication, one he also uses with Salinger, whom he later calls “a New Yorker writer,” which would be confusing if such a definite term could be used about his categories. Examining his lists by his own criteria, and bearing in mind it is at best a parlor game—though even games, and especially games, have their rules—we find that almost a third of the “Esquire writers” first appeared in The New Yorker and four have published more than twice as many stories or articles there: Joyce Cary (6 to 3), Sherwood Anderson (6 to 2), Salinger (12 to 2), and, bewildering even by Wolfeian standards, Irwin Shaw (43 to 12). (Another of his “Esquire writers,” Jack Gelber has never been printed there, nor is there any basis for Wolfe’s assertion that Hemingway’s “Francis Macomber” was printed in Esquire.) Of his twenty-two “Post writers,” half first appeared in The New Yorker, and a third have published as much in The New Yorker as in the Post or more. Two are as puzzling as the Shaw case: Frank O’Connor with 47 stories in The New Yorker, the first in 1945, as against three in the Post, the first in 1957; and Philip Wylie, who was a New Yorker editor for a time during which he published nearly one hundred contributions there. Again, my point is not to assert the superiority of The New Yorker, which would be to play the mug’s game proposed by Wolfe—I don’t, personally, consider the feast of Irwin Shaw’s fiction a credit to the magazine, and, even less, those almost a hundred items by Mr. Wylie—but simply to insist on the deficiencies of his research by his own standards.4

For the last 15 years,” Wolfe concludes from these marshy statistics, like a near-sighted augur peering at some rather scrambled entrails, “The New Yorker has been practically out of the literary competition altogether. Only Salinger, Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara and John Updike kept them in the game at all.” He adds, for the forty-year record, John McNulty, Nancy Hale, Sally Benson, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, and John Collier, and concludes that future literary historians will pronounce the record “good, but not exactly an Olympus for the muvva tongue.” No mention here, or elsewhere, of Vladimir Nabokov, who at the time of Wolfe’s article had contributed 24 stories to The New Yorker, the first in 1942, or V. S. Pritchett (13 stories, 8 reviews), or W. H. Auden (13 poems, 16 reviews). Or Edmund Wilson, who reviewed books weekly in 1944 and bi-weekly for the next three years and who had since contributed, at the time Wolfe was writing, 24 articles and 65 book reviews. Asked by an interviewer about this last omission, Wolfe explained that Wilson “does his best work not for The New Yorker but in books,” apparently unaware that, for twenty years, the books have been mostly collections of material first published in The New Yorker. Innocent ignorance.

I think, by my lights anyway, a rather prodigious amount of research went into this piece,” Wolfe told a radio interviewer last spring. “I think the pieces are a great—I won’t say tour de force of research, research is not a tour de force it’s just drudgery—but there is a certain depth of research, I think…. It’s not an easy job to write about The New Yorker, because there’s nobody that’s going to talk to you.” He forgets his triumphant “people talked!,” but it’s true they didn’t talk very accurately, also that Shawn refused to be interviewed: “I wanted very much to talk to Mr. Shawn face to face and really, it would have made my work much, much easier.” No doubt. It would also have helped if Shawn had been willing to read the manuscript and correct errors: “I also tried to set up some kind of system with him whereby The New Yorker could give responses to statements… He also declined to do that.” Given Wolfe’s scholastic habit of deducing his facts from his assumptions, a cultural throwback which illustrates with textbook neatness Hegel’s warning that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes—given this method, the practical result of any cooperation by Shawn would have been to strengthen the articles by eliminating the more glaring factual errors without necessarily, or probably, changing their general line. Shawn could have benefited by accepting Wolfe’s cards-on-the-table invitation to respond to his “statements”—a ploy for extracting information from a recalcitrant subject that was not unknown at Fortune—only if he had rewritten the articles completely, which would have been improper as well as impractical. Confronted with this situation, Wolfe had three possibilities as a journalist: to find some reliable informants; to look into the back issues; to give it up. As a parajournalist with a reading block, he found another solution: “Ah love! could you and I with Him conspire/To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire/Would we not shatter it to bits—and then/Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire?” We would. He did.


Tom Wolfe Issue March 17, 1966

Tom Wolfe Issue March 17, 1966

  1. 1

    Her book, of course, is not part of any “court records,” and her quotations from the Bowman-Hulbert Report, to which Volume 9 of the record described above is devoted, despite her claim that “These reports…are quoted in full, except for the unprintable matter,” do not agree with Volume 9. She reprints only a small portion of its 302 pages. The stylistic variations between what she calls full quotations and the psychiatrists’ report there are considerable.

  2. 2

    As Hannah Arendt wrote, in a letter the Tribune didn’t print: “The editor is guilty of a ‘passion for anonymity’, of love for perfection and dedication to his work, of competence, refinement, courtesy and modesty. These qualities ‘add up’ to qualifying him for burying the dead. What then must I do, according to your author, to prove I am alive? I must be vain, blow my own horn, use my elbows, be inconsiderate and above all not polite: my lack of manners, my shouting will wake up the dead!…. Your author goes on. ‘One means well, of course.’ But this is not a matter of course in literary circles. That to mean well is a matter of course in the offices of The New Yorker belongs among the many qualities that make the magazine unique.”

  3. 3

    I found few usable items for my Parodies anthology, for instance, in the hundred years of Punch, whose humor has always tended to be rather broad, and square, which may be why none of the great English parodists, from Calverley to Beerbohm, published much there. The New Yorker, on the other hand, was my chief source for modern parodies.

  4. 4

    For the figures in this paragraph I am indebted to Gerald Jonas, as I am to Renata Adler for some of the material on the Loeb-Leopold case. Both are colleagues of mine at The New Yorker and have written a factual analysis of Wolfe’s articles on The New Yorker which will appear in the Winter, 1966, number of the Columbia Journalism Review, along with an evaluation by Leonard Lewin of the journalistic implications of the affair for the Tribune.