I got the Complete New Yorker for Hanukkah. This impressive eight-DVD set contains digitized facsimiles of every page in every weekly issue of the New Yorker from 1925 to 2005. That’s quite a mound of cultural signification. The boxed set is shaped like a monolith, and at first it feels like one too.
Digging in to a collection like this is not easy. I bet most people who buy this set or get it as a present just jump in and start breezing through, and then quickly find themselves gasping for air. That’s the wrong way to use a set like this, and I’m not going to make that mistake. I’m going to plan my expeditions carefully, working towards specific goals. I’ve got a few missions in mind, most of them focusing on the magazine’s first two decades. I will be posting reports of my discoveries here.
First, I’d like to figure out exactly what the the New Yorker was. It’s interesting that this culture rag was born in the same era as Time magazine, both institutions brought to life by smart young entrepeneurs who understood the importance of advertising. The New Yorker and Time were both “indie” outfits of their era, and both drew readers in by printing punchy, highly opinionated articles.
Time became the pillar of a vast multimedia corporation, but the New Yorker has always kept a tighter focus and clung to a certain essence. What is this essence, exactly, and what is the nature of this beast? Well, let’s click through to the earliest issues and see what we find.
The debut issues of the New Yorker had little substantial writing. The whole magazine was short bits — talky gossip and humor items, mixed with a few longer analytical or creative pieces, most of it under either of the headings Talk of the Town or Behind the News. This, for instance, appears in the Talk of the Town section of the very first New Yorker, dated February 21, 1925:
As it grows throughout the rest of the country cross-word puzzling wanes in New York. At least it wanes in the small group that helped make it fashionable when it was revived a year or two ago. Not that Simon & Schuster, whose green, yellow, red, mauve, ochre and blue puzzle books flood the country, are worrying. This week they are publishing a new volume of the series. According to the advertisements “celebrities” contributed all the puzzles contained in it, and (business of blushing furiously) they tell me (oh, how my cheeks are burning) mine is one of the best in it. At least I think it is.
In the second issue, dated February 28, we find this extended anecdote:
“Well, young man,” said the Great Editor, “I suppose you want to become a writer.”
A timid bow signified assent.
“Have you lived?”
“Of course, of course. What I mean is, have you sinned — sinned greatly? Have you tasted any of the dregs of life?”
“Not since my last class reunion. The cocktails were terrible.”
The Great Editor frowned. It was evident my obtuseness made him impatient.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand”, he said, a bit sharply. “I shall explain. There is no field at present for imaginative works. The reading public wants actuality. You must write something that has happened to you. Now,” he broke off, “let us consider your own life. Have you ever had an illicit romance; ever stabbed your mother-in-law with a bread knife — great title for a story like that, ‘The Bread Knife and the Butter-In’ — every poisoned your wife?”
“I’m not married,” I interposed.
“Ever eloped with a married woman?” he went on. “Ever rolled drunk in the gutters; ever been divorced because of a duchess — even a countess will do, if it’s well-written; ever blackmailed anyone — blackmail hasn’t been done lately; ever fought a duel over a notorious adventuress; ever cheated at cards?”
He beamed expansively.
“These are a few examples of what I mean,” the Great Editor concluded. “Go out and live, my boy, and when you have a real story to tell come back.”
I am determined to accept his advice. I shall begin at the bottom and work up.
Accordingly, I wish to ask my friends not to become alarmed if they see me rolling around any of the town’s better gutters. I shall be merely gathering inspiration. They will owe it to literature to leave me where I lie.
That’s basically the kind of stuff the debut issues of the New Yorkers consisted of. Okay, let’s add up the ingredients here:
— Excessive use of irony
— Rampant sense of exclusivity with small group of fabulous friends
— Chronic self-pity mixed with compulsive fake-coy self-promotion
— Jokes that don’t make sense
— Subtle but disturbing hints of true mental illness
Do the math. You see it as clearly as I do … the original New Yorker was a litblog.
These days, of course, the New Yorker is more like public television with ads for Omaha Steaks. But it’s good to know that, way back then, the proto-Alqonquin crowd was just as pointless, just as trite, and just as greedily insecure as we all are today. Okay, maybe not that bad, but close. The only difference I can see is that this stuff was printed on paper.
My first expedition into the New Yorker archives is complete. I’m now taking a deep breath before going back in for my second mission, in which I will unearth the earliest scribblings of a favorite writer of mine (though largely forgotten by literary critics): John O’Hara, who started writing for the magazine when he was 23.