Thursday, December 18, 2014

About Town - The New Yorker and the World it Made for Me

My Fall-Winter reading list this year has included Ben Yagoda's About Town, The New Yorker and The World It Made [Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000].   

Ben Yagoda

I should preface my remarks about the book by relating some of my personal history. I first saw The New Yorker magazine at about age 13, in a drug-store on a magazine-rack, that would have been about 1960. I don't recall any of the articles it contained, but what struck me immediately was the understated modesty of the layout, and the density of its content. The first part of the text consisted of a very detailed series of announcements and reviews of events and places and opportunities, in very small typeface. It was clearly designed to be of use to residents of, or visitors to New York, though the magazine was distributed nation-wide (even around the world). 

My mom, who had been a reader of The New Yorker since her youth, before World War II, gave me a subscription as a Christmas present in 1961, and I remained a regular subscriber through my early adult life, until the year in which Tina Brown took over as Editor in Chief in 1992. 

By 1960, of course, The New Yorker was already a much different periodical than it had been in its early years--beginning in 1925. Initially a "humorous" magazine, it underwent a transition after the War, becoming a more serious, socially and politically responsible organ. Despite its ostensible "light" content mandate, its editor, the redoubtable Harold Ross, held very strong opinions about editorial policies regarding accuracy, grammar, decency, and factual verification. In consequence, when the magazine began to publish more serious content, its integrity commanded more respect than is typical of popular journals, because they checked their facts carefully before going to press. On the other hand, The New Yorker's early reputation was built on the work of its humorists (Thurber, Perelman, Benchley, et al) and its talented cartoonists. It was a magazine of sophisticated comedy and manners, in an era when people read for recreation, instead of watching television (or interacting with "personal" devices). 

Yagoda's book is a carefully researched history, touching on the major changes, the editorial department's policies, the columnists and feature writers and cartoonists, and some of the larger issues and events in the magazine's progress, over time. In particular, Yagoda was given access to the magazine's internal memoranda and correspondence, from the archive at the New York Public Library, allowing him an insider's view of the relationship between the editors and its staff, and between its editors and their  contributors. The official story is thus enhanced by internal gossip and some of the private friction we usually aren't privy to in accounts of this type. 

The big names of the early years--James Thurber, E.B. White, Alexander Woollcott, Peter Arno, Otto Soglow--gave the magazine a feeling and an atmosphere that was lighthearted, but sharp-eyed. Though not initially designed as a "news" magazine, it prided itself on being as responsible about the facts ("news") it did print, as it was careful about not making spelling or grammar mistakes, which developed into an obsession, with a whole department (the "fact-checkers") devoted to questioning and  verifying every assertion--claim, quotation, assumption, etc.--its contributors might make. This bred confidence among its readers, while establishing a plateau of plausibility upon which writers of accounts could depend. Beginning in the 1930's, a handful of writers, which included notably A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, started composing accounts and reports which contained versions of events and second-hand bits of narrative which would have been impossible to verify. The inclusion of such unverified material tended to be swept along in the tide of editorial presumption at the magazine, to the degree that the whole concept of fiction versus non-fiction journalism became a little blurred. When New Yorker contributors later published collections of the "Talk of the Town" section or longer pieces, in books, they were often described as "stories." 

In the news business, a "story" is a factual account of something that purportedly did happen, whereas an editorial is an "opinion" piece in which open-ended, not wholly factual, assertions may be made. The New Yorker's style of presenting articles and contributions without any lead-in or queueing (just the byline at the end, the author), tended to make the distinction between fact and fiction vague. This may not have been deliberate, and the editorial determination to be accurate probably encouraged the assumption that this distinction was clear enough, given context, not to cause confusion. The magazine tended to shy away from highly controversial subject-matter, and shunned promotional, or publicity-driven material--at least in its earlier period (up through the beginning of the 1950's). By the 1960's, however, the concept of "story" had become perhaps a bit too equivocal. 

In September 1965, Truman Capote published a four part serial account in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. As Capote would eventually say, the book was a "new" kind of writing, what he called the "non-fiction novel" comprised of actual material, but handled in a way that emphasized its dramatic potentials, bringing the fiction writer's skill at presenting and arranging events and accounts, in such a way as to raise it to the level of art, instead of mere journalism. Recently, there have been published reports about the inaccuracies in the book, which have shed some new light on the relationship between The New Yorker's reputation for inviolable commitment to truth, and its willingness to capitulate whenever the urge was strongest. Capote had published this kind of material before in the magazine, The Muses Are Heard, an account of an American opera-company's trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1955 (staging a production of Porgy and Bess), and so had an understanding about what accuracy meant, in the context of its appearance there. His continued insistence--his bragging, really--in the years following In Cold Blood's very successful and profitable appearance, about his having "invented" a new literary form, was an ironic twist with respect to The New Yorker's long-standing reputation, and its own claims to fidelity and integrity. 

Later, Alastair Reid, a Scottish poet, translator and essayist, admitted in an interview, that much of the material he had written in an autobiographical account of his living in Spain, published in The New Yorker, was in fact "manipulated" and even "made-up." And in the pieces authored by Liebling and Mitchell, among others, it has been acknowledged that, over the years, much of the material which had passed, tacitly, as journalistic fact, had been concocted or slightly altered to suit artistic aims. Hence the peculiar ambiguity of the term "story." 

As an aside, here, we might ask what the distinctions are between fact and fiction in feature news writing. And even, to raise the level of discourse even further, what is truth?--or, at least, in the context of accounts of past events--how do establish the truth of history? How is a fact a fact, and how can it be verified? And even assuming that we can agree on what constitutes an actual fact, what allegiance do we owe to this kernel of truth, and how shall it be interpreted, or understood?  

In ancient times, the Greek historians Herodotus, and Thucydides, wrote accounts of wars and political intrigue, which are now regarded as the first examples of formal history. Over the last five hundred years, scholars have debated about the degree of verisimilitude and verifiable fact in their works, and how it should be interpreted. Herodotus was known to think that the purpose of history was to derive ethical lessons, and that it was permissible both to make up stories to illustrate a point, and to knowingly alter facts to suit this greater "truth." Thucydides developed evidence by investigating and comparing different accounts, though in the end his methods of sourcing and gauging were probably no more reliable than Herodotus's were. Disagreements about what actually happened in history are the very stuff of historical research, and opinions about the meaning of what happened, many times more so. Capote's very poetic narrative certainly conveys a sense of the tragedy, the search for justice, and the souls of the participants, in ways that quotidian journalistic approaches could never have done. And that seems, now, 50 years later, the greater point and value of what he wrote, even if it wasn't the truth, the whole truth, so help [us] God, that really happened.  

Truth is a much more elusive quantity than we like to think it is. When we read something, a report or an account, we can weigh degrees of probability against our own knowledge, our powers of deduction, or our sense of the trustworthiness of the speaker. We tend to think that a photograph, or an aural recording, or a chemical test, can impart a degree of irrefutability impossible to achieve through mere testimony, or memory. Science has offered us new tools in the process of determining actual fact. But dry facts, without the human narrative to turn them into a meaningful action, may not be enough in themselves. 

Science and aesthetics provide different kinds of priorities. The struggle, in the case of The New Yorker, to present interesting and convincing accounts, as entertainment, without damaging its credibility, can be easily appreciated. Running a long work, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for instance, which appeared in the NY'er in 1962, obviously required a foundation of accountability which could support the seriousness of the important claims and charges Carson would make.  

As an institution, The New Yorker magazine, which began as a high-brow, light-hearted social society sheet for upper-class New Yorkers, eventually found itself committed to socially and politically responsible journalism. As a magazine, during an era in which the traditional newspaper business, as well as the weekly or monthly magazine field, underwent drastic downsizings, it was able to stay afloat by maintaining its sophistication and reserved imperturbability. As Yagoda recounts, the magazine lost a good deal of money for its new owners the syndicate Advance Publications, after it was acquired in 1984. 

Tina Brown

In the years since Tina Brown [1992-1998] left, Editor David Remnick has accepted the challenge of keeping the magazine relevant, by taking clear stands on important national and international issues, while maintaining many of its traditionally "old-fashioned" content, such as the witty cartoons, the gags ("news-breaks"), light verse, and its hip or occasionally flippant, supercilious temperament. 

David Remnick

Though I stopped reading (or subscribing regularly) to The New Yorker years ago, I continue to read the books of its contributors, such as John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, John Cheever, and many, many others. Yagoda's book was in many senses a trip down memory lane for me, recalling my own fascination with it in early adolescence, and later disillusionment (in the Tina Brown era*). Unlike many readers, it wasn't the cartoons that lured me in; it was the sense of the world as an endlessly intriguing place, ripe for investigation and inquiry, where one might, modestly and with a minimum of fuss, follow one's perspicacious curiosity to the ends of the earth, without ever having left the comfort of your armchair.


*As Yagoda makes clear, Brown's tenure, though it soured many of the subscribers on the magazine, infused it with a spirit that had as much, or more, in common with its original roots (n the 1920's), than with the glitzy spirit of the New York fashion scene, from which Brown had come. Subscriptions jumped under her regime, but advertising revenue didn't. Though it was plain that the magazine would never look as traditional and "quietly" reserved as it had before she arrived, it reclaimed some of its authority under Remnick in the years since.  

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