A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 3

Then the weather turned. In the summer and fall of 1925, Katharine White (then Katharine Angell), Janet Flanner, the artists Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson, and the fashion writer Lois Long all came on. Issues began selling out. By Christmas, advertising contracts had been signed with B. Altman and Saks. In 1926, E. B. White, a disenchanted adman, was hired. In 1927, White brought on James Thurber, a disenchanted newspaper man, and Fleisch¬mann rejected the first in what would turn out to be a long series of offers to buy the magazine—this one for $3 million. By 1928 prof¬its exceeded a quarter million dollars on revenues of $1.8 million. An issue of the New Yorker from the late 1920s looks very much like the magazine forty years later: a glossy, tidily designed book, combining mild, literate wit with reporting and reviewing, all sur-rounded by column after column and page after page of luxury ad¬vertising.
Along the way, though, the urbanity was abandoned. In place of the insider chatter there rose up an entirely different kind of talk. It was bemused, but not smug; intelligent, but never smart; the talk of someone who knows where the party is and how to join it, but who is more disposed to stand, martini in hand, a step or two outside the circle of revelry, someone for whom the experience of ordinary life is the source of fully enough terror and ecstasy. In short, the New Yorker style was created.

People at the old New Yorker always tended to dismiss the sugges¬tion that there was such a thing as a New Yorker style. The require¬ment for a story, they said, was that it be well written; the requirement for a drawing was that it be funny. No test for house sensibility was applied. This was undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t mean that there was no New Yorker style. For the New Yorker was always a thoroughly—a famously thoroughly—edited magazine, and for sixty-two years under Ross and Shawn, its editorial principles were consistent. Whatever was knowing, allusive, or elliptical was amplified and clarified in the direction of perfect accessibility; whatever was suggestive, sensational, or offensive was carefully pruned of those excrescences. This seems—as it was meant to seem—like an entirely negative editorial policy. Nothing, after all, got added to the product. There was nothing that must be said; the ambition was merely to cure writing of the impurities that pre¬vented it from saying whatever it was it wanted to be saying. No de¬cent editor would reject this as a basic principle of good editing. What was distinctive about the New Yorker was that this basic prin¬ciple became, by virtue of the single-mindedness of the magazine’s commitment to it, the overriding principle as well. It took on con¬tent. How the New Yorker was edited came to be what the New Yorker was all about.
Every reader of the old magazine is familiar with the many ways in which this editorial policy made itself known. There was, to begin with, the New Yorker’s punctilio about correct punctuation and us¬age. The compulsion derived from Ross himself, who, while serving on the editorial staff of Stars and Stripes during the First World War, was once placed under house arrest for arguing too vehemently with a superior officer over the proper placement of a comma. The inter¬esting thing about correct usage is that it manages to be democratic and elitist at the same time. Famous writers can’t get away with ec¬centricities just because they are famous. The rules apply to every¬body. On the other hand, knowing what’s correct is one of the signs of a superior education. The newsbreaks—the examples of other people’s solecisms that used to fill out the columns at the end of sto¬ries—highlighted the purity of the New Yorkers text; and they were the magazine’s tribute to the grammatical standards of its readers. A person might be excused for being unable to fix a toaster or to drive an automobile, they quietly suggested, but never for writing a sen¬tence with a dangling participle. (“We’d use a pen.”)
Then there was the New Yorkers long-standing resistance to vul¬garity. In the first theater review he submitted to the magazine, Ty¬nan used the term “pissoir,” a word Shawn could not bring himself to put into print. After a long and amiable discussion, it was agreed that “pissoir” would be changed to read “a circular curbside con¬struction.” For most of the magazine’s history this habit of mind was probably less inhibiting than it has been made out to be. There was plenty of frankness in the magazine’s art and in its writing, and if prudish circumspection was exercised at the editor’s desk, it rarely showed up on the page. But it is also true that the kind of work the New Yorker could attract was limited by the magazine’s distaste for subject matter and vocabulary that eventually became utterly com¬monplace in virtually every other literary forum. Katharine White once wrote to Norman Mailer asking if he would care to contribute a story to the magazine. He would not, Mailer replied, because he did not have the freedom to say “shit” in the New Yorker. White wrote back to suggest that perhaps Mr. Mailer did not understand the true meaning of freedom. Mailer answered that he did indeed understand the meaning of freedom: freedom meant being able to say “shit” in the New Yorker.
Well, “The Time of Her Time” is a story probably no one at the New Yorker was sorry to have missed the chance to publish. It’s hardly a New Yorker story. On the other hand, one of the great defi¬ciencies in the magazine’s reporting was its coverage of the events of the 1960s, and Mailer’s early political journalism, which did a lot to make Harper’s and Esquire exciting magazines in those days, was just the kind of perfectly serious writing that lay outside the New Yorkers bounds. And some fiction the magazine probably was sorry to have missed. “Goodbye, Columbus” is reported to have been turned down because the story involves an item Shawn considered unprintable, a diaphragm. (“A circular cervical construction” was evidently not proposed as a substitute.)
For many people, the quintessence of New Yorker style was the style of “Talk of the Town”—the style of “We enjoy a parade as much as the next fellow, so when an invitation to the first annual Lite Beer Drinkers of America parade crossed our desk the other day,” etc. The much-parodied first-person-plural voice was a consequence of the circumstance that for many years all “Talk” items were written by one person, relying on the notes of individual reporters. This was Thurber’s job in the early days, and later it was Gill’s. With the ar¬rival of reporters like Mark Singer and lan Frazier in the early 1970s, “Talk” became more of a competition of stylistic virtuosity; but the vestigial “we” tended to hang on.

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