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.

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.

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.