Here at The New Yorker
Thurber: A Biography
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 of somewhere like The New Yorker, to convert this ordinary abstinence into a “custom” and give it the quality of the silence round a death bed.
Again, William Shawn, editor of the weekly since Harold Ross’s death in 1951 (actually Shawn took over early in 1952), has a passion for anonymity, and Gill’s description of him as “one of the best-known unknown men in the country” only reiterates the idea behind Wolfe’s pieces—which was to do a mock profile of “The Man Nobody Knows.” Wolfe insists rather solemnly on the overediting that goes on at The New Yorker, even comparing it unfavorably with Time, but Gill has a very funny passage on exactly the same process. An imaginary new writer is pitched into self-doubt by the proliferating corrections and suggestions on his copy when he gets it back:
Poor devil, he will type out his name on a sheet of paper and stare at it long and long, with dumb uncertainty. It looks—oh, Christ!—his name looks as if it could stand some working on.
The New Yorker, which began life in 1925 as an “irreverent, understaffed, comic weekly,” in Thurber’s words, had become an institution by the mid-Thirties. It was a glossy monument to American culture at its casual best, a printed cousin to Fred Astaire’s dance style, and all the recurring wonderment about how Ross, that hayseed from Colorado, could have got together such a sophisticated, metropolitan publication is itself a constitutive feature of the magazine’s myth: elegance achieved in the most appealing, the most American way—through a sort of inadvertence. Eustace Tilley, the Regency buck who appeared on the first New Yorker cover (and still appears each February, as anniversaries roll round) was in one sense out of place, as Gill suggests he was: a fastidious Englishman in a noisy New York.
But in another sense he was just what was needed, for dandyism of various kinds is the magazine’s keynote, and Tilley’s bland gaze, peering through a monocle at a hovering butterfly, is the perfect image for the way The New Yorker seems to think of itself. The monocle, halfway between a microscope and the naked eye, more refined than spectacles, more recondite than a magnifying glass, is a definition, a manifesto. As an early prospectus suggested, the aim of The New Yorker was to treat the big city as if it were a small town, thereby consoling the locals, who had been treating the big city as if it were a big city, and conscripting the provincials, who would feel they were being let in on the action, invited to become New Yorkers of the spirit. But more important, the tone of the magazine was to be the tone of a man with a monocle, a Wasp Erich von Stroheim looking down his nose and letting fall the odd witticism.
Even now the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine reads very much that way, as do the listings for restaurants and theaters and night clubs. I open a recent issue (March 24) and read, “We had an airy, delightful Sunday lunch recently in the Oak Room of the Plaza with Max Ernst, the Surrealist master…. Ernst is almost eighty-four years of age, small, trim, and impish….” At the Rainbow Grill, “Italian singer Enzo Stuarti is holding forth”; at the Cookery, “Helen Humes, who began when microphones were still menacing contraptions, is singing beautifully”; at the Waldorf, “Little Anthony and the Imperials are the dinner and supper fare.” The manner mixes briskly dispensed information (Surrealist master, Italian singer) with an assumption of shared sophistication (we don’t really need to tell you where the Oak Room is but we will), and sets the whole thing off at a comforting distance. We are not to be taken in by any of this. These things are there to amuse us, all of them, from Little Anthony the rock star to little Max the Surrealist master.
Gill voices the philosophy of this manner when he writes that life, although “often hard and even terrible,” is not “serious”:
And saying that, I am prompted to add what follows out of it: that since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.
There is no third rule, and Gill has no advice for those people who don’t get a chance to obey the first rule. We can admire Gill’s frankness about his satisfaction with his lot—“Sometimes, and with reason, I boast of never having done an honest day’s work in my life”—without being quite as captivated by it as Gill expects us to be. It is a minor act of courage to confess without remorse, as Gill does, to blatant good fortune and gladly accepted privilege, but the thinness of feeling which is evident everywhere in this book suggests that such a life has its drawbacks. I don’t mean suffering or poverty ennobles us. I mean simply that Gill’s poise and considerable honesty seem inseparable from smugness.
Gill is aware of this, and tries to charm the smugness away with stories against himself. But with one exception—the account of the day the Hartford Courant printed the young Gill’s opinion that there would be no war in Europe at the bottom of a page that carried headlines announcing Hitler’s invasion of Poland—his stories circle round into subtle self-praise. Gill manages to sound affectionate about Stanley Edgar Hyman, but he sounds envious about almost everyone else: Wolcott Gibbs, John O’Hara, Thurber, Edmund Wilson. He pays them their dues of literary respect, but levies a commission, as it were, by trying to show them up as small-minded men.
Again, I don’t mean to suggest that we should speak only good things of the dead, or that the dirt shouldn’t come out with the rest, merely that Gill’s writing smacks of a certain type of accounting: so much given, so much taken back. Thus his trumpeting final sentences on Edmund Wilson (“For a writer, the rarest privilege is not merely to describe his country and time but to help shape them. Wilson was among the fortunate handful of writers who have succeeded in doing this…”) might seem to pick up and diminish an earlier innuendo about Wilson’s avidity and lack of scruple in matters of finance. But they don’t. The innuendo remains, drifting hearsay, the price of the praise.
But Gill’s book and Tilley’s monocle represent only the institution, and it is time perhaps to say something about the magazine. Of course, it is more various than any discussion of it is likely to suggest, and many of its best pieces simply represent the editorial intelligence which commissions work from good writers and gives them plenty of room to move. I think of Lillian Ross’s pieces on the making of the movie of The Red Badge of Courage, and of Richard Goodwin’s articles from Peru, and of Jane Kramer’s articles on Allen Ginsberg, but everyone can think of instances. The magazine itself, or rather William Shawn (the same thing, in many people’s eyes), devoted a whole issue to Hiroshima, and took an early and courageous stand on Vietnam. (Tom Wolfe mentions the Hiroshima number only in order to suggest that no one read it, and Gill mentions it only as a means of describing the indescribable Shawn).
But the first and last thing that comes to mind, when I think of The New Yorker, and this must be the case for many people, is its humor: its artists and writers and its “newsbreaks,” those small, vulnerable, misprinted, or mismanaged items from the press around the country, nailed to the wall by a perfect phrase from E. B. White. Leafing through old numbers I find this advertisement, from The New Yorker itself, held up for inspection:
Sauce provençale brings out rare nuances of flavor. One bite of steak anointed with this hot, spicy sauce causes the eye to kindle. A second bite causes the neck to arch—but you get the idea.
White (I assume it was White, who may well have invented the advertisement too) comments:
Sure. One more bite and—presto, a cracked vertebra.
Gill remarks that he always looks at the drawings first. Many people probably look only at the drawings—that is quite often all I do—and the drawings are perhaps our best chance of getting a sense of what the magazine is up to. I don’t mean to suggest the drawings are all alike, merely that certain family resemblances are very striking. Here are some examples, recalled more or less at random.
Two scruffy bums sit in a bar, and one of them is saying, “When it comes to the mot juste, Harry, you’re in a class by yourself.” An ocean-going ship is sinking, tilted to an alarming angle. On the bridge, the captain is saying to his second-in-command, “The sea can be a cruel mistress, Featherstone” (or some such name). A man and his wife lie in bed, the rising sun just visible through a lattice window. The man says, “I said, ‘But look, the morn in russet mantle clad walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill,’ what did you think I said?” I don’t intend to grind these examples up by analysis, and obviously my choice (or rather the choice effected by my memory, since I haven’t been able to find these drawings again) reflects some bent of my own, but I think it is clear that the humor here lies not only in an incongruence which has its own weird congruency, but also in a sense of language as a helpless, ludicrous gesture, some sort of verbal equivalent for a shrug of the shoulders, or a quick wave of a white flag.
We can imagine lots of other captions for these drawings (which may well have had other captions to start with). Situations are being depicted for which words, comically inadequate or unsuitable, have to be found. These captions bear the relation to ordinary speech that the work of Borges, say, bears to most fiction. The language has come loose, has skidded off into ridicule and instability, and with it goes our hope of ever finding the right words for anything again. In competition with Harry the bum, how can we return to our quests for the mot juste?
There is a freedom in such antics too, of course. If words have come loose, they can be juggled with, and this freedom defines the style of New Yorker writing at its best. Here the words provide the picture and the caption, the situation and the heroic, helpless response to it. This is comedy in which the clown falls on his face but does an interesting somersault on the way down. E.B. White, writing movingly of Harold Ross after Ross’s death, couldn’t resist the vagaries of the word take: “He usually took God’s name in vain,” White wrote, “if he took it at all.” White was very fond of this kind of figure. Bernstein quotes him as describing the “uncanny faithfulness” with which Thurber in his drawings had “caught—caught and thrown to the floor” the mystery of life. Perelman, of course, is the great master of the liberty born of language’s uncertainties:
One day I realized how introspective I had grown and decided to talk to myself like a Dutch uncle. “Luik here, Mynheer,” I said….
The violet hush of twilight was descending over Los Angeles as my hostess, Violet Hush, and I left its suburbs and headed towards Hollywood. In the distance a glow of huge piles of burning motion-picture scripts lit up the sky….
A Dutchman creeps in by way of a figure of speech. A hostess gets a name and Perelman gets a joke about the fate of writers in Hollywood out of an inability to describe a sunset without breaking into a grin. Perelman extends this liberty to the world of allusions. As with the quotation from Hamlet used for the caption to the conjugal view of the sunrise, Perelman drops allusions in such a way as to make sure they will break when they hit the ground. “Just in case anybody here missed me at the Mermaid tavern this afternoon when the bowl of sack was being passed,” he writes, “I spent most of it reclining on my chaise longue in a negligee trimmed with marabou, reading trashy bonbons and eating French yellow-backed novels….” This is a universe not only of mixed metaphor but of totally scrambled cultural information.
Of course, The New Yorker has all kinds of writers (well, several kinds), but I hear Perelman in Barthelme and of course in Woody Allen. And if the magazine carries too many stories about decorous crack-ups in the genteel suburbs, its best and truest signature is probably still the reckless, defeated throwaway line perfected by White and Perelman and many of the magazine’s artists, that tone which is the mark of a perfect discretion, inviting us to laugh, but never telling us when or why. It is a tone which seems similar to that of the monocled optimist and the “Talk of the Town,” but it only seems so. The New Yorker‘s dandyism freezes too easily into condescension, while its humor stays alive because its sophistication is a request for help rather than an expression of superiority.
The genuine sophistication of The New Yorker, as distinct from the worldly weariness of some of its pages, tips us all, hicks and slickers, into the same boat. Whether we are Horatio or Harry or S.J. Perelman, we can’t even find words for a sunrise or a sunset, and if we can’t talk about a sunrise or a sunset, what can we do? We have only to compare the jaunty desperation of any good New Yorker joke with the bland description of Max Ernst I quoted earlier. Perelman can’t describe the twilight without making all that linguistic fuss. “Talk of the Town” takes on a Surrealist master without batting an eyelid.
Thurber joined The New Yorker in 1927, worked there for many years, wrote a very good book about Ross and the magazine. Plainly Thurber had a good deal to do with creating the New Yorker style I have been describing, and obviously Thurber could write like E. B. White, or even Perelman, when he wanted to. But there is an innocence about most of Thurber’s writing, and about all of his drawings, which seems to separate him from The New Yorker. The New Yorker‘s sophistication turns out to be a form of disarray, but Thurber’s disarray is a visible feature of his writing identity. His characteristic gesture is not the throwaway, or the quibble, or excruciating simile, but a mild-mannered murmur at the world’s craziness (I am speaking of Thurber the writer—Thurber the man appears to have been anything but mild-mannered). His pose is patient bewilderment, helped out by brief forays into something a little more flashy.
Just when I had been led to believe that the human being and his planet had no more hope of a prolonged and improved existence than a lace valentine in hell, word is brought to me by my pageboys that neither the sun nor the mind of man is, after all, going out.
The lace valentine in hell is New Yorker panache, and the voice resembles Perelman’s in many ways. But the king and court so discreetly evoked by the word pageboys, and the anticlimax of the sentence, delayed and then underlined by that “after all,” are pure Thurber. The quietness of the writing manner parallels the thin, faint lines of his drawings. In one of the most famous of them, a lady crouches on top of a bookcase, peering down at two men and a woman below. One of the men is saying, “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.” The sheer normality of this announcement matters almost as much as the familiar draftsmanship, which promotes the bookcase to a solidity of substance obviously denied to mere human beings.
Burton Bernstein’s biography is a decent, slightly depressed affair. It is as if the tantrums of Thurber’s later life have so got Bernstein down that not even Thurber’s books can cheer him up again: a sort of moral Humpty Dumpty. Bernstein quotes from a great many letters, which I find more charming than Bernstein seems to, and the intelligence and courage with which Thurber weathered out the gathering gloom of his life deserve a better epitaph than Bernstein’s “He left something elegant and important behind.” He left behind innumerable pictures of men preserving their sanity in the midst of despair, and when he spoke of the “death pangs of comedy” showing up in his book on Ross, he had a sense of something larger than his own failing imagination.
In the book itself, he describes Ross as asking why there are no humorous writers left. “You find a guy that can write humor,” Ross mutters, “and the first thing you know he turns in a piece about a man stumbling over the body of his wife on the floor, or something like that.” Asked what can be done, Thurber mildly wonders whether Ross has thought of “changing the nature of the modern world and the grim course of the century.” Thurber could sustain that vision and still be very funny; could see the world as too ill for humor and go on with the gags. Still, no man is a hero to his biographer, and James Joyce didn’t coin the word biografiend for nothing. Thurber predicted that he would die while his wife was at the hairdresser’s, and he did. Such things are funnier when they are not true.