The Genius of William Shawn, and the Invention of The New Yorker
David Remnick on the Post-War Evolution of an American Literary Institution
Just the other day, feeling a ripple of melancholy after cleaning out desk drawers and stacking books into orange moving crates, I wandered into the office next to mine. After 90 years in a micro-pocket of midtown bordered by Times Square and Bryant Park, The New Yorker was heading to new quarters, at the southern tip of Manhattan.
My colleague Pamela Maffei McCarthy greeted me at her door and, with a sly smile, pressed on me four fat folders. “You’re going to want to look at these,” she said.
As deputy editor, Pam may have accumulated more files than anyone else in our offices, so I suspected that she was attempting a wily offloading maneuver, sticking me with a papery hillock of old expense reports. No backsies! But, after I took the files to my desk and started to sort through the delicate onionskin pages, I realized that this was treasure— hundreds of editing memos written by Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker, in 1925, and ran it for a generation. The memos were dated 1950 and 1951, his last two years alive.
Ross was suffering from lung cancer and other painful maladies in those final years, but his eccentric, unstoppable obsessiveness, his unembarrassed habit of questioning every matter of grammar, usage, and fact, no matter how niggling, seemed undiminished. Encountering “Bird of Passage,” a short story by a pup writer named Roger Angell, Ross riddled the query pages with numbered points of contention, a spray of editorial buckshot. A few pellets:
I was told recently that banks stay open until 4 o’clock.
Do people say executive, i.e., use it in conversation. It’s pretty much of a writer’s word.
It is my recollection that most hotels have uncarpeted marble or floors that look like marble.
Reading John Cheever’s short story “Clancy in the Tower of Babel,” Ross responds, “One technical point in this piece bothers me. Cheever has Clancy, his elevator man Clancy, around the building early in the morning and late of the evening. . . I think under union rules, which govern these things, elevator men gain the day shift by seniority.” He senses that a reporting piece from Berlin by Joseph Wechsberg is overly sympathetic: “I still think it is too soon for us to go pro-German.”
And, as he considers an essay by Lionel Trilling, you can practically hear the sigh of a man who set out to create a “comic weekly” surrendering to the demands of a graver sensibility: “I suppose there’s no other way of doing this, but it always bothers me when a reviewer writes as if he’s talking the book over with someone who has already read it, and knows what’s on p. 236.”
In those days, Ross had to spend many days in the hospital. He was quick to disappointment and exasperation, and yet he had a successor in mind, an editor as seemingly recessive in manner as he had been aggressive and incandescent. William Shawn, a shy newspaperman from Chicago, worked in the early 1930s for Ross as an “idea man.” Ben Yagoda writes in About Town, an excellent history of the magazine, that on Shawn’s first two days on the job he conceived ideas for ten Talk pieces, including the “Jac Mac Famous School of Acrobatics”; pigeon farms on Manhattan rooftops; a rat exterminator on Riker’s Island; and George Selkirk, the talented, if not quite immortal, outfielder whose destiny it was to replace Babe Ruth in right for the Yankees. Shawn made his mark as an editor by directing the magazine’s coverage of the Second World War. Ross came to think of him as indispensable. As he wrote to Kay Boyle, in 1949, “I can’t do anything with Shawn away, for the future is in his head.” When Ross died in December 1951, Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine’s owner, appointed Shawn. He remained in the job for the next 35 years.
In his attention to detail and his urge to clarity, Shawn resembled Ross. Yagoda relates how Shawn sent a memo to Matthew Josephson telling him that his profile of William Knudsen, a leader of the automobile industry, was “a stunning piece of historical reporting.” Then he wrote that he was appending “a few questions.” There were 178.
But Shawn, who took over the magazine in January 1952, was a distinctly different personality. Shawn assumed for himself far more authority than Ross, who was prepared to delegate a greater amount to his various deputies, or “Jesuses.” Shawn was also quiet, subtle, secretive, elliptical, and, to some, quite strange. He was a variety of genius who enjoyed funny writing as well as serious fiction, supported completely the individual artists and writers on a profoundly variegated staff, and expressed his myriad curiosities about the world by sending writers out to explore its many corners. J.D. Salinger called him “the most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors.” Beneath the modesty, however, was a steely tactical will. Harold Brodkey suggested that Shawn combined the qualities of Napoléon Bonaparte and Saint Francis of Assisi.
Shawn was also working in radically different circumstances than Ross. In the early years of the magazine, Ross was often at odds with ownership and battling over questions of principle and money. As with most fledgling editorial enterprises, the central concern was existence itself. Would the thing survive? The New Yorker almost closed its doors more than once. I have on my wall a rueful letter from Fleischmann informing a business-side colleague that he was shutting the magazine down. It is dated May 1925—three months after the debut issue. There were many such moments of despair and rescue. But the magazine found its financial footing, and, by the early 1950s, it was in happy synch with the postwar consumer boom. Educated middle- and upper-middle-class readers seemed to want what The New Yorker was providing, and advertisers identified the magazine as uniquely suited to reaching those freespending readers.
With that kind of security, and with so many editorial columns to fill, Shawn could think expansively about the magazine. He could build on the deepening ambitions of the 40s with the plump resources of the 50s. If he wanted reporting from the newly independent country of Ghana, the big East-West summit in Geneva, or the Bandung Conference, in Indonesia, he did not consult the ledger books; he sent a writer. In fact, the sheer proliferation of advertising demanded that Shawn scramble in search of more and more editorial matter. This, he found, had an inevitable drag on quality. There is, in this world, after all, only so much talent at a given time—only so much good writing. At a certain point, he found it necessary to limit the pages in a weekly issue to 248—as fat as a phone book in some towns. In his tenure as editor, Shawn made innumerable hires, tried out countless freelancers, and ran long, multipart series—some forgettable, some central to the literary and journalistic history of mid-century America. His relationship to advertising was distinguished mainly by the ads he found too distasteful to accept. A manufacturer of bathroom fixtures once told me that his ads for bathtubs and sinks had been rejected, because, as Shawn told him, “They are in the bathroom, which means they are next to the, well, you know . . .”
Decorum was important to Shawn, even though the world was changing. Rachel MacKenzie, a fiction editor, rejected Philip Roth’s 40,000-word novella “Goodbye, Columbus” less because of its length—the magazine had just run J. D. Salinger’s 50,000-word “Zooey”—but, rather, because, as MacKenzie wrote, “taste would rule out here much of what is essential to the narrative.” The magazine accepted Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” but not his more frenetic story “Eli, the Fanatic.” “We all agree that there are remarkable things in the story,” MacKenzie wrote to Roth’s agent, “but we feel that it keeps sliding off into caricature and farce and that in the end it falls between realism and didactic modern fable, the emotional thread breaking and the lesson taking over.”
Shawn was also wary of the Beats, perhaps the most lasting school of literary outrage in the 50s. When the fiction editor Katharine White rejected the author of On the Road, she wrote, “We read with a great deal of interest John Kerouac’s ‘Go, Go, Go,’ and it makes us hope that he will have other short stories to send us. . . We hope that Mr. Kerouac will try something for us that is not about this particular group of wild kids.” Similarly, the magazine, which was alive to the work of young poets like James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath, was not a home for “Howl” or “Kaddish.” Jane Kramer would write a marvelous multipart profile of Allen Ginsberg, but not until the late 60s.
Critics like Seymour Krim worried that The New Yorker, which had exhibited so much bite in its first few decades, was now getting complacent and reserved in middle age. But no magazine can be a completist omnibus of the cultural or political moment, and this one never aspired to be one. History will inevitably find it wanting in some way or another. A reader looking in the 50s archives for a profile of Chuck Berry will be disappointed. The coverage of jazz did not prove worthy of the form until Shawn gave Whitney Balliett a jazz column, in 1957, by which time rock and roll was under way. Shawn’s magazine was much more in the groove of its time with other arts, as some of the pieces here make thrillingly evident: Lillian Ross’s irresistible Hemingway profile, Winthrop Sargeant’s profiles of Richard Avedon and Marianne Moore, Berton Roueché’s piece on Jackson Pollock, Truman Capote’s barbed portrait of a youngish Marlon Brando, Thomas Whiteside’s profile of Pat Weaver, the executive-maestro of NBC.
One of the lasting triumphs of cultural reporting for the magazine in the 50s was Lillian Ross’s five-part series about John Huston, Hollywood, and the making of a mediocre adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Ross had joined the magazine during the war, one of a small number of women who found a place there when so many men were in the service. Having obtained unfettered access to Huston, the cast, the set, and the relevant executives, Ross painted a dramatic, detailed, and wicked portrait of all the ambitions and compromises that go into even a failed and ephemeral production. Ross’s prose is direct, and unembellished, but the simplicity is deceptive. The influence of the work was significant. Norman Mailer, when discussing The Executioner’s Song, credited Ross as a pioneer in nonfiction.
Political and foreign reporting had become a great deal more serious during the Second World War, and there was no going back to the wide-eyed, we-are-confused-little-men fripperies of the bygone world. Reading the best of it here, you get an uncanny sense of writers coming to grips with issues and maps that are with us today. A.J. Liebling in Gaza and Janet Flanner in Algeria confront the emerging Middle East; Joseph Wechsberg in Berlin and Emily Hahn in China draw the fault lines of the Cold War. Bernard Taper’s travels with Thurgood Marshall, in his days with the NAACP, is an early look at the civil-rights movement. And Richard Rovere, a Communist who, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, had become an anti-Communist liberal, covered Washington as an outsider living in Rhinebeck, New York. His running portrayal of the malign phenomenon of Joseph McCarthy was some of the most impressive political coverage that the magazine had yet produced.
Harold Ross liked to pose as anti-intellectual—he famously declared himself unsure whether Moby Dick was “the man or the whale.” Shawn was without any such ambivalence toward intellectual ambition. One of the first writers he hired was Dwight Macdonald, who had been an editor at Partisan Review. Macdonald was capable of both outrageously witty criticism—as when he dissects Mortimer Adler’s Great Books set—and vivid, sympathetic political reporting, as with his profile of the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.
The postwar 50s had a certain technological utopianism about them—not unlike our current era—and the magazine was notably alive to this. Shawn was wary of modern gadgetry (he would not ride in an elevator without an attendant), but that did not quash his curiosity. There are pieces here on the whizbangery of push-button phones, video-tape, home freezers, the “perceptron simulator,” data processing, and, with real depth, the dawning of the Computer Age.
Finally, Shawn had a sharp eye for that essential component of any institution that wishes to develop: new talent with new things to say. The 50s saw the rise of one such talent in particular, John Updike, who, for the next 55 years, was an unfailingly prolific and versatile contributor to The New Yorker. His fine-grained prose was there from the start, and, with time, his sharp-eyed intelligence alighted on seemingly every surface, subject, and subtext. Updike was, out of the box, an American writer of the first rank. He was profoundly at home at The New Yorker and, at the same time, able to expand the boundaries of its readers’ tastes. He could seem tweedy and suburban—a modern, golf-playing squire—and yet, as a critic, he introduced to the magazine’s readers an array of modernists and postmodernists, along with writing from countries far beyond the Anglo-American boundaries; as a writer of fiction, he was not a revolutionary, but his short stories make up a vast social, political, and erotic history of postwar America, or at least some precincts of it.
One of the more persistent myths of the magazine came up in those Ross-era files—the putative tyranny of its stylistic prejudices. Roald Dahl, whose story “Taste” is published here, wrote to one of Ross’s editors that he was in a “howling fury” because of the outrageous and peremptory changes reflected in a set of proofs that had just arrived in the mail. “You have sprinkled commas about all over the pages as though you were putting raisins in a plum-pudding,” Dahl wrote. “I know what commas I want. I know what phrases I wish to use. It is my story. I wrote it.” And yet, as any reader will see, even in the 50s, before the arrival of experimentalists like Donald Barthelme and Max Frisch, writers in possession of a real voice did not lose it, despite the magazine’s at times persnickety ministrations. Nabokov, Welty, Flanner, Ross, Liebling, Mitchell, Capote, Thurber, Updike—they are utterly themselves, their preferences and hesitations as distinct as can be.
Now we’ve moved downtown to the end of Manhattan island and into the tallest skyscraper in the city. From our floor, there is an astonishing view of the harbor that used to be Joe Mitchell’s beat. At a certain point, certainly by the 50s, Joe told editors and friends that the city was changing—changing so profoundly that he no longer saw it as his own and, gradually, he wrote more about the past, about his interior New York, about the memories that carved through the present like initials gouged in old tabletops. This is often what happens. Young men and women arrive and it is their work to describe the world that is becoming. That’s the way it is now.