A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 5

After the 1920s, the New Yorker began running cartoons on most of its covers. During the thirties the drawings tended to be composed of stock elements of upper-class life: doormen, butlers, chauffeurs, mink-stoled Park Avenue matrons, top-hatted clubmen—occasionally thrown into discomfiting contact with the lower orders. When the war began, the magazine executed one of its canny repositionings. Domestic circulation fell off, so a scaled-down edition of the maga¬zine without advertising—called a “pony” edition—was made avail¬able to troops overseas. Serious reporters like Kahn, Robert Shaplen, and A. J. Liebling were dispatched to the front; cartoons of life in the armed forces began appearing on the covers and inside; and there were two powerful and uncharacteristic New Yorker cov¬ers, both by Christina Malman, that referred directly to the war: a 1940 charcoal of soldiers herding a crowd of civilians whose faces are turned away, and a 1945 drawing celebrating the human dimen¬sion of the Allied victory. By the end of the war, the pony edition was outselling the parent magazine; and when the soldiers returned and the great middle-class boom of the postwar era started up, the New Yorker had already won its slice of the new audience.
But the magazine was careful to continue to insist on just a slice. In the 1930s, Fleischmann had taken the trouble to keep the maga¬zine’s phone number unlisted in order to discourage new sub¬scribers, and this policy of limiting readership was continued. By the mid-1950s the New Yorker ranked seventy-second in circulation among American magazines, but it ranked third in ad pages. Be¬tween 1957 and 1964, it sold more ad pages than any other magazine in the country; by 1963, it was realizing a 10 percent profit on a $21 million gross. In 1965, it sold 6,092 ad pages, beating its closest com¬petitor, Business Week, by almost thirteen hundred pages.
And the magazine was turning down three-quarters of a million dollars in business a year. Ads for goods that were considered too down-market for New Yorker readers, such as ads for Sears, Roe¬buck, or that were deemed distasteful by Shawn, such as ads for lin¬gerie, were routinely rejected. In 1966, the year after Tom Wolfe’s “murderous” article, the New Yorker reached its sales peak with 6,143 ad pages. And then, very suddenly, the roller coaster began to run the other way. In 1967, the magazine lost five hundred ad pages; it lost another four hundred in 1968, five hundred more in 1969, seven hundred in 1970. Circulation began to slip. People who worked in the magazine’s ad department started returning calls.
You can read what was happening on the covers. The human fig¬ure began to disappear from the New Yorker cover around the time of the Cuban missile crisis; by the mid-1960s a steady annual pro¬portion of landscape covers has been established. By the seventies, the cartoon cover with a human subject was a rarity. There were Cape Cod cottage exteriors, cityscapes framed by apartment win¬dows, flowers and teapots, Steigs and Steinbergs and Korens. But apart from the occasional appearance of one of Charles Saxon’s overweight suburban dignitaries, the human caricature had mostly vanished. The New Yorker had obviously lost its sense of its audi¬ence as a recognizable social type. It knew what its readers’ taste was, or ought to be. But it didn’t have a very secure sense any longer of what its readers looked like. By 1970, the New Yorker audience, once a homogeneous, discrete social entity, had started to splinter. It was holding together only through a common sensibility, a shared bundle of tastes; and those tastes had begun to seem more and more ephemeral, less and less worth preserving, every year.
In his introduction to a collection of New Yorker covers, pub¬lished in 1989, John Updike suggested that one way you could en¬tertain yourself with the book was to pick a year that was eventful for you and see what was on the covers. If you were born after 1945, this is likely to be a fruitless exercise. These are some covers from the summer of 1968: June 29, students studying quietly in a library; July 6, dog sleeping on porch, American flag hanging from the rail¬ing; July 13, distant figures on a beach; August 10, middle-aged man in a rowboat confronted by giant inflatable beach toy; August 17, generic politician addressing half a dozen microphones; August 24, sunflowers; August 31, middle-aged vacationer in jacket and bow-tie preparing for a cocktail party at a beach house. In short, nothing to suggest that the inner and outer life of the summer of 1968 was not exactly like the inner and outer life of the summer of 1958.
If you look inside these issues at the “Notes and Comment” sec¬tion—which serves, as, in effect, the New Yorkers lead editorial— you find, along with observations on the effects of the drought on home gardening and a piece on jogging (“Joggers surround us these days . . .”), two items of symptomatic importance. One is a reflec¬tion on current events:
We grow increasingly disturbed these days, not just by the news but by its inexplicable lack of continuity. … In wartime, we for¬merly kept a map of the world with colored pins, and were globally anxious, for there was never any question of the whole not being the sum of all the parts. . . . We have been thinking of getting out our map again, except that now it must be hopelessly out of date. Perhaps what we need is some sort of situation map of the world on our front pages.
It is the return of the Thurberite nebbish, fretful that making sense of the world is much too big a task, but not quite sure whether peo¬ple who pretend to make sense of it are not being a little pompous. Excuse us for being so unsophisticated, but maybe it’s all really much simpler than everybody seems to think; maybe we could put a sort of situation map on the front page … It is a politics of whimsy, and it is therefore a politics nobody in 1968 was likely to be paying much attention to.

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