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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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Sent to the Hill School, in Pennsylvania, where Edmund Wilson also went to prep school, Gibbs took a pass on college, as did many of the good writers of his and the preceding generation. Brendan Gill remarks that Gibbs suffered feelings of inferiority for not having gone to university, though this seems unlikely. H. L. Mencken, who similarly didn’t bother with college, claimed that between listening to boring German professors and working as a journalist covering fires, executions, and bordello raids, there really wasn’t any choice. Vinciguerra reprints a mock commencement address to non-college-graduates Gibbs wrote that establishes his awareness of the inanity of much college education.

Wolcott Gibbs died at 56, in 1958, in bed, cigarette in hand, a batch of galley proofs of a collection of his writings on his lap. In his introduction, Vinciguerra leaves open the question of whether he was a suicide, which was what Gibbs’s third wife suspected. He was a dedicated drinking man, a serious boozer, as were many of the staff assembled by Harold Ross. The New Yorker of those days was a place where, in the mornings, it wouldn’t at all do to tell people to have a great day.

While he could cause laughter in others, Wolcott Gibbs was not himself a notably cheerful man. (“I suppose he was the unhappiest man I have ever known,” wrote his friend the playwright S. N. Behrman.) When a newly arrived writer at the New Yorker asked him if he had had a pleasant New Year’s, Gibbs instructed him to practice an anatomically impossible act on himself. This same want of conviviality found its way into his drama criticism, but with winning effect. He came across as the very opposite of the enthusiast—as a man much put upon, giving the clear impression that he wished he could have departed most plays after the first act; or better still, never left his apartment and gone to the theater in the first place.

All this might result in mere glumness if Gibbs didn’t write so well. Of the great and gaudy snob Lucius Beebe’s early days in journalism—Beebe later made his mark as the chronicler of café society—Gibbs wrote: “He had an apathy about facts which verged closely on actual dislike, and the tangled wildwood of his prose was poorly adapted to describing small fires and negligible thefts.” Gibbs described the mustache of Thomas E. Dewey as “bushy, dramatic, an italicized swearword in a dull sentence.” He referred to posterity as “the silly bitch,” to Eugene O’Neill’s “involved and cosmic posturings,” to the liberal newspaper PM as “a journal of salvation,” to the “genial condescension of an Irish cop to a Fifth Avenue doorman.”

Gibbs claimed to be “comparatively accomplished only in the construction of English sentences,” but he also had a nicely angled point of view and the courage of his opinions. Intellectually, he was hostage to no one, not even Shakespeare. He thought Romeo and Juliet an ill-made play: “There are too many innocent misunderstandings and staggering coincidences, too many potions and poisons; in the end, far too many bodies cluttering up the Capulets’ not so very quiet tomb.” Sacred cows, he felt, made good hamburger. Paul Robeson, he wrote, overacted in the part of Othello.

To the gods of modernism, he brought no sacrifices but, instead, a heavy dose of useful philistinism. Of Waiting for Godot, he wrote: “All I can say in a critical sense, is that I have seldom seen such meagre moonshine stated with such inordinate fuss.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit he called “little more than a one-act drama of unusual monotony and often quite remarkable foolishness.”

On lighter matters, writing about Maurice Chevalier’s stagey pursuit of women, he compared French seduction to women’s basketball: “There is a lot of squealing and jumping up and down, but certainly not much in the scoring department.” In explaining the breakup of the old Algonquin Round Table group, he wrote:

Those who didn’t move away [to Hollywood, to Connecticut or Bucks County] were by now temperamentally unfit for the old close association, since there is nothing more enervating to the artist than the daily society of a lot of people who are just as famous as he is.

One of Gibbs’s few idols was Max Beerbohm, also a literary man of all work, with great skill as a caricaturist added. Gibbs and Beerbohm shared the quality of sublime detachment. No man of his day was less parti pris than Wolcott Gibbs. After reading the more than 600 pages of his writing in Backward Ran Sentences, I cannot characterize his politics. A. J. Liebling, his colleague on the New Yorker, claimed that his own politics were “let Paris be gay,” which turned out not to be true in the case of Liebling (who was a fairly standard liberal) but was, I believe, true of Gibbs, although gaiety, clearly, was scarcely his specialty.