A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 4

“Talk” reflects Ross’s hatred of knowingness, which is indeed the bane of much of the higher journalism in America. The tales of Ross’s ignorance have been told often enough—that he once queried “William Blake” in a manuscript; that he asked a fact checker whether Moby Dick was the captain or the whale. The sto¬ries get repeated in part because a kind of virtue is understood to at¬tach to such ignorance: it is, after all, superior to pretension. This is the virtue expressed in the ordinary-man style of “Talk of the Town.” Thurber once submitted a “Talk” item to Ross for editing and got it back in this form (Ross’s emendations are italicized):
For those who exclaim over armor, a thing pretty rare with us, the three new suits the museum has just come by will prove en¬thralling. One of them, a richly ornamented Spanish war harness, has more pieces of rechange, or you might say accessories, than any other battle suit in the world. . . . Among other prizes of the New Accession Room is the lid of an amphora, hut we never did find out what an amphora is.
This is a style that has things all ways at once: the trendy or preten¬tious event (such as it is) is reported; any filaments of the experi¬ence that might be suspected of trendiness or pretension are mocked; and the mockery is ostensibly at the writer’s expense, so no one need feel offended. The writer has found his way to the party, but he chooses to stay on the fringe. He’d like to be on the inside, maybe, but, oh dear, just finding a taxi was quite enough excitement for one afternoon. The attitude can be read as modesty, or as the politest possible put-down.
Thurber and White were masters of this persona, and S. J. Perel- man produced a brilliantly rococo version of it. It showed a different face in the magazine’s serious fiction, where the technological and epistemological befuddlement of the “Talk” and humor pieces was exchanged for the moral befuddlement that comes with life in the upper-middle-class bubble. New Yorker short-story writers suc¬ceeded in generating an extraordinary pathos from this befuddle¬ment; and although it has long since been imitated to the point of cliche, the pathos was not a false one. The New Yorker story ex¬pressed with great precision the inner life of a certain kind of mid¬century American: well off but insecure, well educated but without culture, enlightened enough to know how morally dark the world is in which he moves, but without a clue about how to live beyond it.
In its classic form, the story came in a lighter and a darker ver¬sion. In the lighter—White’s “The Second Tree from the Corner,” John Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” John Updike’s “The Hap¬piest I’ve Been”—the ache is part of ordinary experience; it is first built up by the accumulation of trivial failures and humiliations, then soothed by the machinery of a momentary epiphany whose materials are taken from the world as it is. In the darker version—in Jean Stafford’s “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” Harold Brodkey’s “Sentimental Education,” J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Ba- nanafish”—the ache does not belong to the world; it comes from some demon outside, so that the world is unequipped to console it, and the life breaks apart. The essential psychological condition in both versions, the condition that is the source both of the pathos and, when it happens, of the consolation, is powerlessness.
Something of the same spirit of self-effacement informs the most successful and inimitable of the magazine’s genres, the New Yorker cartoon. Many longtime New Yorker subscribers liked to con¬fess, in a typically New Yorker denial of cultural pretension, that they never read the thing, they only looked at the cartoons. (They rarely confessed to the obvious corollary to this, which is that they also looked at the ads. Subscribers may not have read anything in the New Yorker, but they turned every page. That’s the behavior the cartoons were designed to stimulate.) The distinctive feature of the New Yorker cartoon, as Michael Wood pointed out many years ago, is that the comic situation is not visual but verbal. In the begin¬ning, in fact, New Yorker artists supplied only the drawings; the cap¬tions were considered too important to trust to them, and were provided by the writers. Helen Hokinson, for instance, the creator of a staple New Yorker caricature of the 1930s and ’40s, the Ladies’ Club president with the imperious bust, never wrote a single cap¬tion. The dialogue in the famous Carl Rose cartoon of a mother and child at the dinner table—“It’s broccoli, dear.” “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it”—was written by E. B. White.
Of course, there were New Yorker artists whose drawings didn’t require captions (Saul Steinberg and William Steig, for example) or for whom the caption was often secondary to the image (Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson). But in the typical New Yorker cartoon, the drawing was the excuse for the caption, so that the same topoi tended to turn up again and again: two men at a bar, a man and a woman on a desert island, a pollster conducting an interview, a hus¬band and wife in their living room, a man at his desk, people at a cocktail party, two animals talking. (Gill reported that once, in an effort to reduce the backlog of talking animal drawings, the maga¬zine printed an issue that ran only talking animal drawings; he said that nobody noticed.)
The humor in these cartoons was always in the language. What was funny was not what was said—it was rarely a double entendre (as in, say, a Playboy cartoon) or topical satire (as in an editorial car¬toon in a newspaper). What was funny was the language used to say it. If the scene was a cocktail party, the language was fatuous; if it was a man in a bathtub talking to his cats, it was grandiose; if it was a middle-aged couple in their living room, it was melodramatic. Children spoke with adult cynicism; barflies uttered solemn pedantries; animals talked in psychobabble. These captions were comic imitations of the speech of New Yorker readers, displaced onto harmless caricatures. It was a highly cultivated form of wit, one that flattered and teased at the same time. And as the history of the magazine proves, it was eternally reusable.

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