About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Made

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9780306810237: About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Made
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For more than seven decades, the New Yorker has been the embodiment of urban sophistication and literary accomplishment, the magazine where the best work of virtually every prose giant of the century first appeared. With all the authority and elegance such a subject demands, Yagoda tells the fascinating story of the tiny journal that grew into a literary enterprise of epic proportions. Incorporating interviews with more than fifty former and current New Yorker writers, including the late Joseph Mitchell, Roger Angell, the late Pauline Kael, Calvin Trillin, and Ann Beattie, Yagoda is the first author to make extensive use of the New Yorker's archives. About Town penetrates the inner workings of the New Yorker as no other book has done, opening a window on a lost age.

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"The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."

This now-famous line first appeared in the prospectus Harold Ross wrote for a humor magazine he was hoping to start, and, in fact, epitomized the publication's early years. For, as contributing editor E.B. White once ruefully wrote in response to a query about what kind of submissions were wanted, "I myself have only the vaguest idea what sort of manuscripts The New Yorker wants. I have, however, a pretty clear idea of what it doesn't want."

Plenty of books have been written about The New Yorker over the years--many by people who were intimately connected with it. Ben Yagoda's About Town is the first, however, to concentrate on the magazine itself, rather than the personalities who shaped it. In his introduction Yagoda writes: "What I had in mind was a critical and cultural history. It would consider, first, the content of the magazine--how its original form came to be, and how and why it evolved over the years. Second, I would look at the role the New Yorker has played in American cultural life." Yagoda is as good as his word as he takes readers from the founding of the magazine in 1919 up until 1987, the year William Shawn was forcibly retired from his position as editor in chief. An epilogue covers the Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick years, but the author considers that with Shawn's departure, the curtain came down on The New Yorker as "a unique and influential institution in our culture."

Of course devotees of Harold Ross's brainchild could be expected to eat this book up, but About Town is more than just the story of how a magazine was made. Yagoda provides a window on a lost age--New York in the '20s, '30s, and '40s before the advent of television, when magazines and newspapers were at the center of the nation's cultural and intellectual life. He writes well, evoking the times, the people, and the places with such clarity that Harold Ross himself would have been pleased. And it is to Ross that Yagoda and the reader owe much of About Town, for it seems The New Yorker's founding editor kept meticulous records--as did those with whom he worked. When S.I. Newhouse took control of the magazine in 1985, its editorial files--all 2,500 archival boxes of them--ended up at the New York Public Library. Letters from editors to writers and vice versa, minutes from art meetings, memos, editorial queries, and marked-up manuscripts are the raw materials from which Yagoda shapes his story, and he tells it so well that it often reads like a novel. The section dealing with the magazine's decision to run John Hersey's Hiroshima in its entirety is positively gripping.

But perhaps the best thing about About Town--for those readers who, like Alice in Wonderland, demand pictures and conversations in their stories--is the plethora of memorable quotes (and even a few photographs) that bring to life The New Yorker in its heyday. Consider this letter from Vladimir Nabokov concerning a short story the magazine had bought:

A man called Ross started to "edit" it, and I wrote to Mrs. White telling her that I could not accept any of those ridiculous and exasperating alterations (odds and ends inserted in order to "link up" ideas and make them clear to the "average reader"). Nothing like it has ever happened to me in my life.
Or this snippet from Ross's letter to H.L. Mencken: "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control."

Lovers of The New Yorker can thank their stars that Harold Ross never did get his fussiness under control. And they can thank Ben Yagoda for writing this comprehensive and satisfying biography of one of America's most enduring literary institutions. --Alix Wilber

About the Author:

Ben Yagoda is the author of Will Rogers: A Biography and co-editor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. He is a regular contributor to numerous national publications. He teaches journalism at the University of Delaware and lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

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