Book: Here at The New Yorker by Brendan Gill

Some interesting history but not much fun

Brendan Gill
Here at The New Yorker
Da Capo Press, 1997 (originally published in 1975)
ISBN: 0-306-80810-2
395 pages

Here at the New Yorker by Brendan Gill is about the author's long career writing for and editing that magazine. It invites comparison with James Thurber's somewhat earlier book on the same subject, The Years with Ross.. Unfortunately, the comparison is in some respects not flattering to Mr Gill's book.

It has been more than a few years since I read The Years with Ross and my memory may be misleading me. But if I recall that book correctly, Mr Gill's book is wider-ranging, more thorough, more systematic, and more psychologically subtle than Mr Thurber's. Mr Gill's book is also, alas, a lot less fun.

Working at The New Yorker in its early years (the magazine was first published in 1925 and Mr Gill joined its staff in 1938) must have been fascinating. Harold Ross (its first editor), James Thurber, E. B. White, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, S. J. Perelman and any number of the magazine's other writers and editors are larger-than-life figures today. And there's no shortage of fascinating and often hilarious stories that have been written about them. But Mr Gill doesn't tell those stories. For example, he tells several stories about Alexander Woollcott early in the book and not one of them is funny.

Now, it may be objected that Mr Gill's purpose was likely to have been serious history rather than a mere entertainment or collection of amusing anecdotes. To which I would reply only that The New Yorker was founded as a humor magazine and employed a great many very funny people. To write about it at length without telling funny stories (as Mr Gibbs does almost without exception) suggests a deliberate effort.

The book's first few chapters consist of vignettes (some of them rather ill-tempered) of events that include people who worked at The New Yorker. They serve as a sort of introduction to the cast of characters. There follow several chapters on Mr Gill's happy childhood as the son of a prosperous physician in Hartford, his college years, and his early free-lance work for the magazine. Then there are chapters that are a petty much chronological history of his employment at the magazine (with a three-year hiatus). Then there are chapters about Harold Ross and Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine's financial backer, with whom Mr Ross's relationship was often tempestuous. Then there are some chapters of short pen-portraits of artists and writers who were regular contributors to the magazine. Some of those are pretty interesting and I think it's unlikely that you'll find the same information anywhere else. Then there's a chapter on the bars and restaurants that the magazine's staff seem to have spent lots of time in. Then more pen-portraits of contributors.

The book's final chapter is an exception. In it Mr Gill writes generously and a bit impressionistically about Mr Ross and a bit about his successor, William Shawn. But one amiable and charitable chapter doesn't undo the effect of for the previous 27 that are often uncharitable and seem at least sometimes to deliberately avoid discussing anything charming or funny.

Toward the middle of the book Mr Gill reveals that Harold Ross was racist. It's a shame that he was. But that error may not have been entirely uncommon among people born in the nineteenth century. Indeed, on the same page that Mr Gill tells us that, he refers to Central American "banana republics". Which is not the same thing as being racist, but serves as a reminder that everyone is influenced by the times they live in.

James Thurber comes in for especially heavy criticism. (I could be wrong, but some of this feels a bit like settling old scores.) Mr Gill twice calls him malicious, providing as evidence nothing more than a couple of tasteless pranks. And I suppose it is logically possible that a humorist as brilliant as Mr Thurber was should have it in his nature to "wish to inflict pain" (p. 290). But Mr Gill admits elsewhere in the book that Mr Thurber was a jokester. Is it not possible that a few of his jokes fell flat and a few more were in poor taste? Mr Gill doesn't consider that possibility, at least not in the book.

If you're keen to read about The New Yorker and require the greater scope of this book, there isn't much wrong with it. But The Years with Ross is also informative and is splendid fun to read.

Posted: Sun - May 4, 2008 at 04:12 PM   Main   Category: