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The New Yorker

American magazine, 1925–
The New Yorker is one of America’s longest running and most successful journals. The publication began as a humor magazine, and many readers still find the cartoons its most distinctive feature. However, the New Yorker’s success is based on more than its cartoons; its success is attributable to Harold Ross, the founding editor of what became America’s wittiest and most sophisticated magazine. After only three changes in editorin- chief in its history, it generally retains this reputation, much of which is derived from the journal’s high-quality essays.
Only Ross, who claimed “I’ll hire anybody” and who early on proved that statement, would have hired Ross. His connection with the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club (Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P.Adams, George S.Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and Dorothy Parker) led to his founding of the magazine. Through this group Ross met Raoul Fleischmann, a millionaire baker, who agreed to provide $150,000 for Ross’ proposed journal.
The early months were almost fatal for the New Yorker. Fifteen thousand copies of the 21 February 1925 inaugural issue were sold, but by late April circulation had dropped to 8000, and by August it had fallen to 2700. Ross and Fleischmann declared the magazine defunct, then changed their minds. The budget was cut, Fleischmann supplied more money, and 60,000 dollars was allocated for advertising. Finally, though, it was Ellin MacKay’s essay “Why We Go to Cabarets, A Post-Debutante Explains” in the first year’s
Thanksgiving issue which saved the magazine. MacKay created a Park Avenue audience with her essay about why young women from New York’s high society went to nightclubs rather than contend with stag lines at private parties.
With minor variations, the New Yorker’s format has remained constant. The first textual material, “Of All Things,” contained the magazine’s prospectus, followed by the “Talk of the Town” section. Other departments in the beginning were “Profile,” “The Story of Manhattan-Kind,” and “Behind the News.” Lois Long created the “Tables for Two” and “On and Off the Avenue” columns. The nightclub gossip of the former and the good taste of the latter, a buying guide, attracted readers and provided the journal with stability.
After the premiere issue, “The Talk of the Town” was the first editorial content until “Goings on About Town” was moved to the front in December 1925. Beginning with this issue, the names of “Advisory Editors” (Ralph Barton, Marc Connelly, Irving Kaufman, Alice Duer Miller, Parker, and Woollcott, who was replaced by Hugh Wiley) were printed above the “Talk of the Town” title. The role of Ross’ managing editor was filled by many men labeled “Jesuses” and “Geniuses”: Joseph M.March, M.B.Levick, Arthur Samuels, Bernard A.Bergman, Stanley Walker, Ik Shuman, Philip D. Hoyt, and St. Clair McKelway.
Until 1969, no masthead or table of contents was included in the magazine. There is still no identification of the editorin-chief or of fiction, nonfiction, or art editors, and even after a table of contents was added, contributors’ names were not listed for years. In fact, one of the attractions of the New Yorker was the guessing game prompted by the printing of authors’ names at the conclusions of their contributions. Readers either turned to the end of a piece to see who wrote it or tried to determine authorship from the topic and style. The placing of the writer’s name at the end remained in force until quite recently, even when the information was eventually placed in the table of contents; the names now appear at the beginning of the articles.
Items in the table of contents fall into four categories: regular departments and various kinds of reporting (on politics, or theater, dance, film, music, art, and book reviews); personal experiences and reflections; works of fiction; and poems. Except for advertising, the first content in today’s New Yorker is “Comment,” followed by “In the Mail,” “Goings on About Town” (a listing of events in New York City), review sections, other departments on an irregular basis, poetry, and “casuals,” as Ross called the periodical’s prose pieces.
The New Yorker’s format reflects its editorial philosophy. No blurbs appear on the cover to grab a reader’s attention (although this policy may be in the process of changing, with blurbs printed on a half-cover wrap for issues sold at newstands and abroad). Little color has been used in the magazine, though more and more is being featured, mostly in advertisements. The black and white pages are clean and quiet, as is the prose, and there are no subheads, an approach devised by make-up editor Carmine Peppe.
Ross never catered to an audience. He contended that he would not edit his journal “for the old lady in Dubuque” because “An editor prints only what pleases him—if enough people like what he likes, he is a success.” In the New Yorker’s prospectus he declared that the magazine would “be a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life. It will be human. Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit, and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will not be…radical or highbrow. It will be…sophisticated…It will hate bunk…Its integrity will be above suspicion.” In the editorial statement in the premiere issue, Ross said that the New Yorker would have “a serious purpose but…not [be]…too serious in executing it. It hopes…to keep up with events of the day.” The magazine would “publish facts that it will have to go behind the scenes to get, but it will not deal in scandal for the sake of scandal.”
The chief element in the New Yorker’s success was Ross’ editing: “Use the rapier, not the bludgeon,” he advised. To help his writers hone their prose, he edited it meticulously; manuscripts were returned with lists of numbered comments that sometimes were as long as the manuscripts. Ross also established a special department to check every fact. Fourletter obscenities and sexual connotation were barred.
Ross had misgivings about his management abilities. To overcome this he was willing to hire almost anybody. Employees were brought in high on the editorial ladder, regardless of their experience. Most worked down to a more suitable level or left the magazine, but for 26 years Ross attracted and fostered the most important American humorists, who knew or found out how to make the magazine a success. He not only allowed his talented staff to perform, he forced them to reach their potential.
William Shawn served as editor-in-chief for 30 years, having replaced Ross in January 1952. Born Chon (he changed the spelling so readers would not think that he was Chinese), he had minimal journalistic experience when he joined the magazine as Ross’ hand-picked successor, and he perpetuated the characteristics established by his predecessor. Both men developed writers under their tutelage, albeit in different ways.
Whereas Ross was a stickler for details, the intellectually inquisitive Shawn was concerned with whether an author said what he intended to say. Shawn was also more politically oriented than Ross—it was he who convinced Ross to devote an entire issue to John Hersey’s 30,000-word “Hiroshima” (1946), and during Vietnam and Watergate the New Yorker, particularly in “Notes and Comments,” spoke out against immorality.
Humor diminished under Shawn, though he may not have been at fault. In the mid- 1940s, Ross bemoaned the dwindling of humor and the increasing “grim stuff.” Times, taste, and authors change, and the world of World War II and after was not amenable to the happy-go-lucky humor of the early New Yorker. There is still humor, but entire humorous essays are rare. Indeed, the magazine has become increasingly political, and increasingly liberal.
The major categories of essays for which the journal is noted are the profiles
(biographical portraits), personal reminiscences, and reviews of the arts. New Yorker casuals are characterized by humane, cultivated, erudite, sensitive qualities. The style is lyrical softness. Authors assume an unhurried, gentle, relaxed, urbane prose. If they sometimes appear dilettantish, they are not foppish, silly, or stupid; quiet as opposed to ranting, they are amused, yet wistful; they are romantic; they are wise but at times innocently foolish. Many of America’s important writers have contributed to the journal.
The list contains a Who’s Who of American humorists in the mid-20th century: Benchley, S.N.Behrman, Sally Benson, Clarence Day, Ralph Ingersoll, Nunnally Johnson, Kaufman, Ring Lardner, Long, H.L.Mencken, Parker, S.J.Perelman, Leonard Ross, Thorne Smith, Jean Stafford, Frank Sullivan, James Thurber, E.B. White, Woollcott. Among the most famous pieces were Day’s “Life with Father” (1935) and Ruth McKenney’s “My Sister Eileen” (1936) series.
Additionally, many other distinguished authors’ works have appeared in the New Yorker: Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin, Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring), John Cheever, Robert M.Coates, Clifton Fadiman, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery” caused a major brouhaha in 1948), A.J.Liebling, Mary McCarthy, John McNulty, Lewis Mumford, Irwin Shaw, Rebecca West, Edmund Wilson. Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe was published in the New Yorker, as have been over 100 pieces each by Truman Capote, John O’Hara, and J.D.Salinger. The high quality continues with works by Wright Morris, Alice Adams, and Calvin Trillin. Regular contributors have included Brendan Gill, Penelope Gilliatt, and John Lahr (on drama), Pauline Kael and Terrence Rafferty (on film), Molly PanterDownes (“Letter from London”), Edith Oliver, and George Steiner.
Of all of the writers who have contributed to the New Yorker, three have made the biggest imprint and are most representative of the journal’s tone: White, Thurber, and Perelman. White, who joined the staff in 1926, may have had the greatest influence. He was responsible for much of the editing and helped Ross establish the style that until lately characterized the prose. Famed for his essays and children’s novels, he is renowned as well for his revised edition of William Strunk, Jr.’s The Elements of Style (1959).
Possibly more important than White’s editorial skills were his “Talk of the Town” contributions, particularly “Notes and Comments,” for this section set the tone for the New Yorker’s content and approach. White’s “Notes and Comments,” Thurber says in The Years with Ross (1959), “left its firm and graceful imprint on American letters and… exerted its influence upon local, or even wider, affairs.” The format and the success of the “Talk of the Town” demonstrate how well Ross chose those who shared his vision and were equipped to execute it. In the 1924 prospectus, he stated, “There will be a personal mention column—a jotting down in the small-town newspaper style of the comings, goings and doings in the village of New York. This will contain some josh and some news value.” During White’s 11 years as department head, he provided what Ross wanted. The Ross-White tradition continued when Russell Maloney took over the “Talk of the Town” editorship in 1935. David Kuhn is the current “Talk of the Town” editor, yet even today the department retains much of the flavor introduced by White, that of a small-town newspaper reporting on events in a folksy way, implying writer/reader familiarity and a sharing of beliefs. Unfortunately, the editorial “we,” which used to be used throughout, has been replaced by an ego-centered “I,” an indication of a new philosophical approach.
Thurber’s impact on the New Yorker was immeasurable. He, too, joined the magazine in its formative period, in 1927, and as an active, long-time editorial staffer, he was a primary factor in determining the journal’s style. Most important, however, were his model 364 casuals and 307 drawings. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939), a classic fantasy, became the most famous piece of fiction ever published in the New Yorker.
Perelman’s relationship with the New Yorker was different from that of White and Thurber. His contribution came in the form of his casuals. Between 1930 and 1979, Perelman contributed 278 casuals, and his writing came to define New Yorker humor. His style, drawing on American frontier humor and Yiddish theater, combined careful structuring, “lapidary prose,” a massive vocabulary, refined exuberance, and a sense of literalism about clichés filtered through a sense of parody in pieces described by White as having “a lead sentence… that was as hair-raising as the first big dip on a roller coaster.”
Among Perelman’s more popular essays were his “Cloudland Revisited” series of 22 reminiscences (1948–53) which began with “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep.”
Like its writers, the New Yorker audience is urbane, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and affluent. With the editorial appointment of the British, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown in October 1992, however, a transformation occurred. In Brown’s new incarnation, the magazine’s contents and tone have shifted, as has its audience. When the New Yorker was established, the editorial and advertising departments were assigned physically separate offices; Ross did not want the advertising department to have any opportunity to influence the editorial department. He was particular about what products could be advertised in his journal as well. James Playsted Wood (1971) noted the New Yorker restrictions on advertising: “no exaggeration, superlatives, or innuendoes. It eschews feminine hygiene, bad breath, body odors, and patent medicines. It will picture nothing which is worn beneath a woman’s slip.” Comparing this policy with Brown’s four-letterword-sprinkled essays and lingerie ads is instructive in light of the magazine’s recently diminished reputation. However, possibly because of the large amount of publicity generated specifically about Brown’s editorial decisions, the New Yorker’s circulation jumped from 628,104 in June 1991 to its present level of 833,672. This has not occurred without sacrificing much of the traditional style and character which distinguished the journal—evident in the placement of the authors’ names, added color, increased advertising, less humor, and the nature of the articles. In 1994–95, timely pieces on topics such as O.J.Simpson, a pro-Hillary Clinton puff, and an attack on Newt Gingrich are representative of the Brown approach.
If longevity, circulation, and advertising revenue were insufficient to demonstrate the success and importance of the New Yorker, the journal has received serious attention from major periodicals, and books and chapters in books have been written about the magazine that the Bombay Times calls part of American social history and the Spectator labels “an important part not only of American culture but of Western culture generally.”
The Saturday Review attributed the New Yorker’s success to Ross’ sense of perfection, the “number and variety of items in each issue,” and the “complexity of action” behind the magazine’s weekly publication (an outgrowth of Ross’ traits combined with a wide audience and broadening of subject matter). Ross’ love for accuracy produced attention to detail not usually found elsewhere. This instilled a feeling of good workmanship complemented and emphasized by the editorial care given to the writing style. The result was that for the majority of the 20th century, the New Yorker was the primary force in redefining the essay in America.


Further Reading
Blow, Richard, and Ari Posner, “Are You Completely Bald? Adventures in Fact Checking,” New Republic, 26 September 1988:23
Brilliant, Richard, Portraiture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, and London: Reaktion, 1991
Cullather, James L., “Has the Laughter Died? Musings on the New Yorker’s Business Ethics Cartoons,” Business Horizons 26 (March-April 1983): 30–33
Cullather, James L., “Musings II: Revisiting the New Yorker’s Business Ethics Cartoons,” Business Horizons 29 (May–June 1986): 23–17
Gale, Steven H., “Thurber of The New Yorker,” Studies in American Humor issue on Thurber, 3, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 11–23
Gale, Steven H., “The New Yorker,” in American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, edited by David E.E.Sloane, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987:179–91
Gale, Steven H., “James Thurber,” in Popular World Fiction, 1900–Present, vol. 4, edited by Walton Beacham and Suzanne Niemeyer, Washington, D.C.: Beacham, 1987:1524–38
Gale, Steven H., “James Thurber,” in American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Second Series, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 102, Detroit: Gale Research, 1991:319–34
Gill, Brendan, Here at the New Yorker, New York: Random House, 1975
Kramer, Dale, Ross and the New Yorker, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1951
McPhee, John, “The New Yorker Index 1992,” New Yorker, 22 February 1993:81–102
Mott, Frank Luther, A History of American Magazines, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 5 vols., 1938–68
The New Yorker Staff, “Remembering Mr. Shawn,” New Yorker, 28 December 1992/4 January 1993:134–45
The New Yorker Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Album, 1925–1950, New York: Harper and Row, 1951
Peterson, Theodore, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, revised edition, 1964
Thurber, James, The Years with Ross, Boston: Little Brown, 1959
Wood, James Playsted, Magazines in the United States, New York: Ronald Press, 3rd edition, 1971

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