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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In a fine formulation, Vinciguerra writes that Gibbs “embodied [the New Yorker’s] archetypal combination of blunt honesty, sly wit, exacting standards, and elegant condescension.” The New Yorker of those days seemed mildly aristocratic, making everything seem easily within the grasp of its writers and, perhaps as important, of its readers. Hilton Kramer, in an essay-review of James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, recounts that a New Yorker fact-checker called him countless times to get straight the positions of various French art critics for a piece the magazine’s own art critic, Robert Coates, was writing about the European art scene. When the piece appeared, Kramer was struck “at the absurdity of the feigned ease” with which it was presented in Coates’s published copy: “I marveled at the discrepancy between the pains taken to get the facts of the matter as accurate as possible, and the quite different effort that had gone into making the subject seem easy and almost inconsequential to the reader.” What was going on? “For myself,” Kramer wrote,

I don’t see how we can avoid concluding that the principal reason for The New Yorker’s method is ignorance: the ignorance of writers first of all, and ultimately the ignorance of readers. In a society which could assume a certain level of education and sophistication in its writers and journalists—which could make the assumption because it shared in that education and sophistication—there would be more of a public faith that writers knew more or less what they are talking about.

But, then, the magazine has never been without its critics. Robert Warshow, in 1947, wrote: “The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.” The charge here on the part of Kramer and Warshow, of course, is middlebrowism—the pretense of culture when the efforts behind attaining true culture have been efficiently eliminated for the reader.

The charge of middlebrowism became more difficult to prove as the New Yorker began, under William Shawn, to load up on certified intellectual contributors. Edmund Wilson was the first of these, writing regularly for the magazine’s book section. Dwight Macdonald soon joined Wilson, and his assignment was, precisely, to attack such middlebrow cultural artifacts as Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins’s Great Books of the Western World, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and Webster’s Third International Dictionary. Harold Rosenberg signed on as the magazine’s regular art critic; Susan Sontag wrote for the magazine. Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and other highbrow novelists regularly published stories in the New Yorker. Two of the great controversial intellectual publishing events—Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and James Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time”—first appeared in the magazine’s pages.

The reason so many intellectuals, in effect, went over to the New Yorker is no more complicated than that they were asked. The money the magazine paid was much greater than that paid by any other even semi-serious magazine. Quite as important, the New Yorker had the best of all American audiences. Anything published in its pages was certain to be read by everyone a writer cared about. Even people who didn’t much like the magazine felt obliged at least to glimpse it. Writing for the magazine, one discovered an America one could not be sure existed until one heard from its readers: the cardiologist from Tacoma, Washington, who kept up his ancient Greek, the lady from Tyler, Texas, who read Proust in French and with intellectual penetration, and many more.

William Shawn’s regular contributors not merely appreciated but adulated him, a writer’s editor. Two of my friends who were staff writers under his reign never referred to him as other than Mr. Shawn. Editorially, Shawn was immensely tolerant, allowing writers to take years to complete assignments (he could also hold back pieces for decades and not run them at all). He permitted his writers to run on at great, sometimes stupefying, length: Long John McPhee pieces on geology or E. J. Kahn pieces on corn were notable winners in the eye-glazing boredom category. A man who does not press a writer about deadlines, never suggests that length might be a problem, and pays him handsomely—that, from a writer’s point of view, is an immortal editor.

William Shawn was the editor responsible for changing the New Yorker, taking it from the realm of smart into that of intellectual journalism. Was it a happy change? Under it, Wolcott Gibbs was replaced as drama critic after his death by Kenneth Tynan, a man much more attuned—some would say too well attuned—to the avant-garde. Arlene Croce, along with Edwin Denby the best dance critic America has known, covered ballet. Movies, which had hitherto been treated as, at best, trivial entertainment became, under Pauline Kael, quite literally the talk of the town, with Miss Kael’s opinion on the latest movie weighing more heavily among the so-called educated classes than the opinions of the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The magazine also became more political. Earlier, E. B. White would occasionally print Notes & Comments editorials urging the need for world government, an idea always up there among the Top Ten dopiest political ideas of all time. Under Shawn, political ideas became more specific. He ran Rachel Carson on pollution, Lewis Mumford on city planning, and several pieces highly critical of American involvement in Vietnam. The magazine’s politics were liberal but—an important qualification—liberal without being hostage to any political party, professing to speak on behalf of the greater good of the nation.

During his long editorship, Shawn held to an unvarying policy of no profane words or descriptions of sex in the New Yorker. (Whenever one saw a John Cheever or John Updike story in Harper’s or Esquire, one could be fairly certain that it contained bits of fancy fornication.) Harold Ross’s advice upon hiring editors for the magazine was “Don’t f— the contributors,” which Wolcott Gibbs claimed was the closest Ross came to enunciating an editorial policy. This was a policy violated by, of all people, Shawn himself; after his death it was revealed by Lillian Ross, one of the magazine’s longtime reporters, that she and the married Shawn had had a love affair of many years’ standing.

Much to the consternation of the New Yorker’s staff, in 1987 William Shawn’s retirement was forced, at the age of 79, by S. I. Newhouse, who had bought the magazine for his Condé Nast publishing empire. Robert Gottlieb, a successful publisher’s editor, replaced Shawn. His major contribution to the magazine was to allow profane language and sexy stories in its pages. He departed five years later, to be replaced by Tina Brown, who set out to make the magazine genuinely with-it. She had a taste for épater-ing the genteel with gaudy covers and photographs, and also made it seem, through her selection of articles, as if the most important things in the world were Hollywood, designer culture, and royalty. 

After Tina Brown left in 1998 to begin a short-lived magazine called Talk, the magazine was taken over by David Remnick, an earnest journalist who had written well on the Soviet Union and other matters. New Yorker staff members, seeing this as a return to seriousness, were pleased. Remnick’s ascension also meant a turn toward a more specific politics. The politics were liberalism now distinctly aligned with the Democratic party, both in a large number of its general articles that make American foreign policy seem what the left calls “the imperialist project,” and in its “Comment” editorials written most weeks by Hendrik Hertzberg, which read with all the complexity of old western movies: Good guys wear Democratic hats, villains wear Republican ones, and that isn’t the Lone Ranger but Barack Obama riding to the rescue.

Relevance has its costs. In its covers, its coverage of events, its need to seem au courant, and its insistent politics, the New Yorker has begun to seem more and more like a weekly news or opinion journal (“of salvation”) than the magazine once adored by earlier generations of readers. The New Yorker Wolcott Gibbs wrote for—elegant, literary, ironic, laced with a bracing skepticism—was the spiritual house organ for people looking for relief from the clang of rivaling opinions, the barkering of each week’s Next New Thing, the knowingness of haughty punditry, the maelstrom of the world’s unrelenting noise. The New Yorker of the current day flourishes financially, its circulation in the ascendant. The New Yorker of Wolcott Gibbs’s time, published in the world we now live in, would probably not last out the year.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.