“BACKWARD RAN SENTENCES:The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker,” by Wolcott Gibbs

November 11, 2011

In January 1958, reviewing “The Music Man” for the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs confessed himself utterly baffled as to how musical comedies are put together: “I have no idea how the damn things get there in the first place — by what weird midnight prodigies of collaboration — and I certainly have no coherent advice to offer anyone about fixing things up, being comparatively accomplished only in the construction of English sentences, a knack approximately as useful in these entertainments as the ability to knit.”

Maybe so, but in his time there was scarcely anyone more skilled than Gibbs in the construction of English sentences. He was a master. During the three decades he worked for the New Yorker — from the late 1920s until his death in September 1958, at the age of 56 — he ranked in the esteem of readers of the magazine as high as any of his colleagues, among whom were E.B. White, James Thurber, A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Parker and Jean Stafford. “In his prime,” Thomas Vinciguerra writes in his introduction to this collection of his work, Gibbs “contributed more words and more different kinds of pieces than any of them. . . . He embodied the magazine’s archetypal combination of blunt honesty, sly wit, exacting standards, and elegant condescension. He was uniquely productive and versatile; by his midthirties he had contributed, by his own estimation, more than a million words to the magazine.”

What words they were! He wrote with grace, wit and punch, and he wrote about almost everything, from parodies to short stories to theater reviews, with innumerable side trips along the way. The editors of the New York Times regarded his death as important enough to rate a front-page obituary. Yet today he is almost completely forgotten. This to be sure is the journalist’s inevitable fate, but it is not always a just one. Exceptional prose is far more of a rarity in journalism than most of us in the trade like to believe, so when it occurs it should be treasured and preserved.

This is what has been done in “Backward Ran Sentences,” by Vinciguerra, whom his publisher describes as “a frequent contributor to the New York Times and former deputy editor of The Week.” It truly is an omnium gatherum, bringing together as it does eight profiles, 11 parodies, 16 “casuals” (the New Yorker’s term for brief, informal pieces), 15 short stories, 37 theater and movie reviews, 10 personal pieces and, by way of a coda, an amusing and informative essay entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles.” It is considerably more encyclopedic than “More in Sorrow,” a collection published almost literally at the moment of Gibbs’s death, though to my regret it fails to include “The Education of Henry Apley,” Gibbs’s delicious parody of the novelist John P. Marquand. On the other hand its selection of theater reviews is far larger than that in the 1958 collection (which I have carried from pillar to post for more than half a century) so that alone is reason enough to welcome it.

Alas, Vinciguerra’s decision not to republish the Marquand parody no doubt is a realistic concession to today’s literary tastes. Marquand was one of the country’s most popular and esteemed writers during the 1940s and ’50s, but today almost nobody reads him except parties of a certain age such as I, so a parody of his style and subject matter would fall on deaf ears. By the same token, few of today’s readers are likely to know much about Alexander Woollcott — perhaps they know that he was formidably plump, ferociously opinionated and the inspiration for George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s enduringly beloved play, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” — but surely ignorance is no barrier to enjoyment of Gibbs’s depiction of him as a battlefield correspondent during World War I:


’Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker’ edited by Thomas Vinciguerra (Bloomsbury USA)

“Myopic or not, Woollcott occasionally found himself within range of the cannon, and witnesses say that it was a moving and pitiful sight to see him trying to get down on his stomach when he heard the scream of an approaching shell. Other men dropped where they were, but Mr. Woollcott weighed close to two hundred pounds exclusive of hardware and his descent was gradual and majestic, like a slowly kneeling camel. Even when he had got safely down, he was still far from flat, and it is one of the miracles of the war that he came through it unperforated.”

Purely and simply, that is marvelous writing: “a moving and pitiful sight,” “his descent was gradual and majestic,” “he came through it unperforated.” There are people who would kill to come up with three sentences such as those (count me among them), but they rattled through Gibbs’s typewriter in a minute or two. He was professional to the core, yet if he ever wrote a line of hackwork, I haven’t seen it. His moment of greatest glory — his one shot at a piece that might actually last through the years — came in 1936 with the publication of “Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce,” his parody of “strange inverted Timestyle,” the exceedingly peculiar lingo of the magazines founded by Henry Robinson Luce and his partner, Briton Hadden. The latter’s “impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish.” Gibbs came up with his own immortal version of it:

“ ‘Great word! Great word!’ would crow Hadden, coming upon ‘snaggle-toothed,’ ‘pig-faced.’ Appearing already were such maddening coagulations as ‘cinemaddict,’ ‘radiorator.’ Appearing also were first gratuitous invasions of privacy. Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst’s ‘great & good friend’ was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the ‘cozy hospitality’ of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”

The piece continues in that hilariously damning vein right to its equally famous conclusion: “Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!” That end is now, of course, a work in progress, with Life dead, Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated struggling on the ropes strung by the Internet, People setting a standard of trash journalism that makes “strange inverted Timestyle” seem positively Shakespearean. Oh that Gibbs were around to write the obituary.

One last quotation. Nobody remembers Westbrook Pegler anymore, but think Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Here is Gibbs’s notion of how Pegler might have answered the famous question that a little girl asked the editor of the New York Sun in 1896: “You’re damn right there is a Santa Claus, Virginia. He lives down the road a piece from me, and my name for him is Comrade Jelly Belly, after a poem composed about him once by an admiring fellow-traveller now happily under the sod. . . . Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. There is old Jelly Belly.”

That leaves just enough space to note that Gibbs’s theater reviews alone are worth the price of this fat collection. He had the good fortune to be covering Broadway during what in retrospect looks for all the world like its Golden Age: the age of “Blithe Spirit,” “Oklahoma!,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “South Pacific,” “Guys and Dolls” and “My Fair Lady.” His judgments of all these, made on the run and under the gun, invariably are fair, astute and hold up very well after all these years. So does he.

Jonathan Yardley

BACKWARD RAN SENTENCES

The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker

By Wolcott Gibbs

Bloomsbury. 667 pp. Paperback, $22

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