Philip Hensher

A touch of class | 31 December 2015

There are plenty of good stories about the legendary New Yorker in its heyday, but sadly Thomas Vinciguerra is no storyteller

A touch of class | 31 December 2015
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Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of the New Yorker

Thomas Vinciguerra

W.W. Norton, pp. 464, £

The New Yorker, not far off its centenary now, has moved beyond rivalry to a position of supremacy among American magazines. It has attained this not by taking a particular political position, although it certainly has one — it represents, obviously, a metro-politan, liberal, outward-facing attitude to the world. Rather, its pre-eminence is down to its valuing, above all, the quality of writing.

Of course, aspects of the New Yorker have always irritated people. It possesses a somewhat supercilious quality — the one-page comic sketch, ‘Shouts and Murmurs’, invariably leaves me straight-faced, and sometimes even a bit depressed. I can never decide whether the restaurant reviews are meant to be a joke, so absurd do they make their subjects sound. (While on an extended stay in New York, I read an apparently glowing review of some Williamsburg trendsetter and promptly rang to cancel my reservation.) The film, music, TV and theatre reviews are solid and readable, even of things you would never see; the art and book reviews are hit-and-miss, and sometimes ludicrously mistaken. British readers have to make allowances for the ostentatious respectability of the American media. Things may have relaxed somewhat since the editors made V.S. Pritchett remove the word ‘legs’ from a short story, but not as much as one might think.

Still, the New Yorker is a very good thing indeed. Its long pieces are generally rewarding, and one often finds oneself thinking about an article months, or even years, after reading it: Patricia Marx’s very funny piece about the University of Chicago’s annual Scavenger Hunt, for instance, or Evan Osnos’s extraordinarily haunting essay, five years ago, about a Chinese package tour of Europe. The ethos appears to be to commission trusted authors to research and write articles, and give them however much time they need, before undergoing its famous process of editing and fact-checking. That is an unusual survival in 2016 and despite some recent developments — an online presence, podcasts and a short-lived experiment with Tina Brown — the magazine has preserved a lot of what made it worth reading in its ‘golden age’.

[caption id="attachment_9711282" align="alignnone" width="620"]Charles Addams’s ‘Opium Den’, from the New Yorker, 12 September 1944 Charles Addams’s ‘Opium Den’, from the New Yorker, 12 September 1944[/caption]

Of course, it has been much written about. This volume, unusually, is by a writer who has only been a very occasional contributor. It explores some of the prominent early personalities, such as its first editor, Harold Ross, E.B. and Katharine White, James Thurber and the cartoonist Charles Addams. Thurber is probably the best remembered of them, and admirable if, like me, you couldn’t get through E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web without regretting the loss of the rashers when Wilbur is spared the knife.

Thomas Vinciguerra also talks about lesser known characters, such as the film reviewer John Mosher, described as ‘flamboyant’, meaning that he was homosexual. But the central figure is Wolcott Gibbs. He was the theatre critic, quite abrasive by American standards, and the author of some of the magazine’s most fondly remembered pieces.

Gibbs’s reputation for viciousness doesn’t really stand up these days. Vinciguerra quotes some snippets: ‘The Man with Blond Hair, which vanished from the Belasco [theatre in Broadway] after seven performances, was a striking example of the effect of lotus-eating on the human mind.’ That seems pretty mild by our standards, and in his defence, Gibbs was almost always pronouncing on some awful tripe. The enraged letters from authors, however, are enjoyably deluded: ‘The very wording of the comment indicates that here I have you on unfamiliar ground. Please, therefore, be informed that my gifts as a political thinker are of a very high order.’

Gibbs was a good writer, whose poker-faced, mandarin wit is best glimpsed in a bitchy profile of his fellow critic Alexander Woollcott: under bombardment in the first world war, ‘other men dropped where they were, but Mr Woollcott weighed close to 200 pounds exclusive of hardware, and his descent was gradual and majestic, like a slowly kneeling camel.’ His finest moment came at the height of the war with Henry R. Luce’s Time magazine, in which an extended profile of the publisher is cast entirely in a masterly parody of that magazine’s bizarre, hurried, age-of-plastic business style, culminating in a single devastating line. It has become proverbial among writers:

‘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 and 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.

Vinciguerra originally intended to write a straight biography of Gibbs, but seems to have settled for a patchier effect, including other character sketches. It could hardly be described as a narrative biography: 100 pages after Gibbs first appears we are still being told in summary what he was like as a human being. One of the things that makes the book heavy going is that Vinciguerra is no good at telling a story, even on a very small scale.

To take a single example: he tries to describe Gibbs’s short second marriage, and arranges the facts as follows: the wife, Elizabeth Crawford, worked at the New Yorker and married Gibbs on impulse. They were both popular, and settled down. Then Elizabeth committed suicide. Vinciguerra gives us, first, a version in which the writer John O’Hara was present, followed by another in which Gibbs berated his wife. Then he goes back to the previous night and the play the couple had seen together. Then we get Gibbs’s statement to the police, followed by Katherine White’s account of the night before the suicide. Then a version (which Vinciguerra seems to present as the correct one) in which Gibbs’s sister had been lunching with the couple and Elizabeth threw herself from the bathroom window half way through. In all this conflation of gossip not much emerges about Elizabeth herself, and her sad end just becomes a muddle.

Though Vinciguerra often quotes well from his subjects, his own writing tends to resemble the commercial prose of Time and the bestsellers of the day, as skewered in Gibbs’s parodies (‘ “Wife!” he clamoured through their urgent kiss’). He varies his verbs of speech, against Gibbs’s excellent ‘Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles’, which rightly states that the word ‘said’ is OK. He has favourite words that don’t mean what he thinks they do, (eg. ‘ostensible’) and memorably writes that Alexander Woollcott’s ‘taste was often downright moronic, perhaps deliberately so’. (He means lowbrow.) He turns the japes of his subject into nonsense, repeating Peter Arno’s comment about ‘girls with more alcohol in their brains than sense’ into the absurd ‘Lois Long had more sense than alcohol in her brains.’ The wrong preposition with the wrong verb, added to a taste for backwards sentences, produces: ‘Always he was consumed with believability.’ Elegant variation is everywhere: Gibbs’s essay on the Bronx River is ‘a deceptively deprecating homage to the waterway of the title’. Many sentences have to be read two or three times to make any sense, starting with the very first: ‘The tensions of the summer of 1958 were in many ways typical of the ostensible peace that had followed the worst war in human history.’

All in all, this is a disappointing account of the New Yorker’s early history. I strongly recommend James Thurber’s glorious, elegant The Years with Ross instead. Wolcott Gibbs warned Thurber that if he succeeded in getting Harold Ross down on paper, nobody would ever believe it. The injunction is precise, and characteristic. Getting somebody down on paper — doing it in prose — well, that’s the challenge.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033