Susan Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for her book “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?”
By Thomas Vinciguerra
Norton. 452 pp. $27.95
Sometimes one book leads an author to another. Thomas Vinciguerra is the editor of “Backward Ran Sentences,” published in 2011. Its subtitle is “The Best of Wolcott Gibbs From the New Yorker,” and it encompasses more than 600 pages of Notes and Comment, Talk of the Town stories, profiles, parodies, casuals, short stories, theater and film criticism, and essays that ran between the 1920s and the ’50s. Vinciguerra’s new book, “Cast of Characters,” is subtitled “Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of the New Yorker.” It reveals, in the acknowledgments, that it “began life in 2005 as a straightforward biography of Gibbs. Along the way, it took a couple of sharp turns.”
In his introduction to “Backward Ran Sentences,” Vinciguerra wrote, “Of all [the magazine’s] leading lights, Gibbs probably came closest to being its Indispensable Man. . . . Yet today [he] is just barely remembered for a single article: “Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce,” his celebrated 1936 profile of Henry Luce, which doubled as a satire of Time magazine. More specifically, he is remembered for a single quip, which memorably spoofed Time’s weirdly inverted syntax: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”
Gibbs, while still in his 30s, estimated that he had contributed 1 million words to the New Yorker, but those who skim the 2011 collection will understand his current obscurity. I opened the book at random — random for me proved to be Page 62. An entry dated Nov. 20, 1943, begins: “Thanksgiving will be on us in a week, and thoughtfully we count our blessings. After nearly two years of war, this office, generally speaking, is holding up pretty well. The water runs a little warmer and more reluctantly from the coolers in the hall . . . at the moment the bulb is burned out over the mirror in the men’s room, and the paint is flaking away from the wall in the cubicle where one of the lesser editors sits alone with his lesser, flaky thoughts.” As Gibbs unwittingly demonstrates here, only the finest prose appearing in weekly magazines is worth revisiting. Who can forget John Hersey’s journalistic landmark, “Hiroshima,” which took up almost the entire issue of the New Yorker of Aug. 31, 1946?
Gibbs was versatile and prolific, but his life, to which Vinciguerra has devoted diligence and sensitivity, lacked depth and was shadowed by alcoholism and depression. A biography would probably have been slight and dispiriting. Thus Vinciguerra’s decision to take the sharp turns that led him to add to his book White, Thurber and especially Harold Wallace Ross, the remarkable man who launched the New Yorker in 1925, seems prudent.
“There were so many different Rosses, conflicting and contradictory, that the task of drawing him in words sometimes appears impossible,” the author quotes Thurber as having written. Ross, a Westerner, born in 1892, dropped out of high school, worked for assorted small newspapers for some years and enlisted in the Army in 1917. Pvt. Ross made his way to the office of Stars and Stripes in Paris and became its leading editor. After the war, he landed in New York, held a couple of positions at inconsequential magazines and started the New Yorker with the most celebrated magazine prospectus in history. It reads, in part:
“The New Yorker will be a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life. Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. . . . It will be what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers. . . . As compared to the newspaper, The New Yorker will be interpretive rather than stenographic. . . . Amusements and the arts will be thoroughly covered by departments. . . . The New Yorker expects to be distinguished for its illustrations. . . . The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque. . . . This is not meant in disrespect, but The New Yorker is a magazine avowedly published for a metropolitan audience. . . . It expects a considerable national circulation, but this will come from persons who have a metropolitan interest.”
After losing money for two years, the slender magazine that Ross edited, which White later described as “lousy the first year or two,” began to improve and to turn a profit. During its first decade, Gibbs, Thurber, White and such gifted editors, writers and artists as Janet Flanner, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Katharine Angell White, Peter Arno, Charles Addams and St. Clair McKelway bestowed their talents on it. Vinciguerrra quotes John Crosby, the television critic of the New York Herald Tribune, who observed upon Ross’s death, in 1951, “An awful lot of malarkey disappeared from journalism in the twenty-five year history of The New Yorker.” Vinciguerra singles out for special praise White, who in Thurber’s words limned “silver and crystal sentences which have a ring — like the ring of nobody else’s sentences in the world.”
The author places the magazine’s golden age as the time between the wars. In the name of fairness, the golden years started after World War I. They continued under Ross and his successor, William Shawn, through the Vietnam years and the early post-Vietnam years. In the 1970s Shawn published first-rate work by Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Ian Frazier, Edward Koren, Roz Chast, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro and so many other writers and artists.
In 1959, a year after graduating from college, I worked as a fact-checker for Esquire magazine. The job convinced me that if I could verify other people’s facts, I could gather my own. That year, Thurber published “The Years With Ross,” a charming, witty book. I was struck by Ross’s editorial skills coupled with the gaps in his knowledge. The most notorious example of his ignorance is this query to his checking department: “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?” I wrote a parody of “The Years With Ross” that ran in the New Republic in 1959, published my first casual in the New Yorker in 1960 and became a staff writer in 1961. I was fortunate to have written for Shawn for 27 years and for Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick for another 20.
Times change, and magazines along with them, but I can’t help thinking that Harold Ross would be pleased that the magazine he conjured up 90 years ago is today the premier magazine in the world.