The Magazine

There at the New Yorker

The wit and wisdom of Wolcott Gibbs

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The New Yorker, like New York itself, is always better in the past. In the present, it seems always to be slipping, never quite as good as it once was. Did the magazine, founded in 1925, have a true heyday? People differ about when this might be. The New Yorker’s heyday, it frequently turns out, was often their own.

Photo of Wolcott Gibbs, Dorothy Parker, and James Thurber

A gathering at the Algonquin Hotel: Wolcott Gibbs (seated, second from left), Dorothy Parker (seated, right), James Thurber (top

Bettmann / Corbis

I began reading the magazine in 1955, at the age of 18—not my heyday, which, near as I can tell, has yet to arrive—drawn to it originally because someone told me that the then-current issue had a story by J. D. Salinger. Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder and tutelary spirit, had died four years earlier. William Shawn was on the first stretch of his 35-year tour (1952-1987) as editor in chief. The writers Harold Ross had hired remained in place—the big four among them were James Thurber and E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling—and the ethos of the magazine was still that which Ross had imprinted.

Ethos is a word that Harold Ross, even if he knew it, probably wouldn’t have permitted in the pages of his magazine. Urban sophistication, emphasizing life’s eccentricities (and often featuring its eccentrics), with an amused view of human ambition, was the spirit with which Ross imbued the New Yorker. The magazine was apolitical, serious without being heavy-handedly so. During World War II its war reporting was first-class, and it gave over an entire issue, in 1946, to John Hersey’s account of the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Yet when I came to the magazine there were still columns devoted to horse-racing, Ivy League football, jazz, and night-club entertainment. The general tone of the proceedings was casual, playful, and yet, somehow, withal adult.

An impressive roster of contributors,  who in those days had their names printed not under the titles of their articles and stories but at the conclusion, popped in and out of the New Yorker’s pages each week. S. J. Perelman, Mary McCarthy, Janet Flanner, Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley were part of the magazine’s literary vaudeville. Many New Yorker writers began their professional lives as newspapermen, lending them an anchor in reality, if not cynicism, before turning to the unpretentious belles-lettristic journalism practiced at the magazine.

If in those years there were a representative New Yorker writer, his name was Wolcott Gibbs. Gibbs, too, began writing for newspapers. A man of all work, he contributed Talk of the Town pieces, Notes & Comments, profiles, light verse, short stories, drama and movie and book criticism, and delicious parodies. (The most famous of his parodies—a parody-profile, actually—was “Backward Ran Sentences,” which was about the rise of Time, Inc., written in Time magazine style.) In the foreword to a collection of his pieces called More in Sorrow, Gibbs claimed to have contributed more words to the magazine over its first 30 years than any other writer. In Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill notes that Gibbs was also the magazine’s best editor of other people’s copy. As an editor, deletion was his specialty; he was a cut man in the corner of less elegant writers.

Wolcott Gibbs is not a name any kid taking next year’s SATs need be concerned about. He wrote a play that had a modestly respectable run on Broadway, and three collections of his various writings appeared in book form (Season in the Sun and Other Pleasures, More in Sorrow, and Bed of Neuroses). Today he seems a man of another era, unlikely to arouse interest in a world clamorous with so many other demands on its attention.

Gibbs might have slid into oblivion but for the fact that an editor and journalist named Thomas Vinciguerra, much taken with Gibbs’s writing, has gone to the work of assembling an impressive, and substantial, collection of his prose, the preponderance of it from the New Yorker. Reading through Vinciguerra’s book sets off many observations, notions, insights into the world of smart journalism, criticism, and the writing life, both now and then at the New Yorker.

As we Americans reckon such matters, Wolcott Gibbs was well-born. One of his paternal forebears, Vinciguerra informs us, signed the Declaration of Independence; another was secretary of the Treasury under John Adams; both were governors of Connecticut. On his mother’s side he was descended from Martin Van Buren. Yet the family was tapped out financially before Gibbs was born, in 1902, owing to bad investments, among them a bungled land purchase in New Jersey.