I discovered The New Yorker (specifically the cartoons) when I was in high school (specifically in the waiting room of my dentist’s office). Like most teenage boys, I got a subscription and hung some of the covers on my bedroom walls. I did not read any of the articles. That awareness would come later.
For Chanukah my senior year, I got this coffee table book and swam through it for hours:
For Chanukah my senior year, I got this coffee table book and swam through it for hours:
In college, I took a course on the history of journalism. I wrote one of my papers on the New Yorker. I remember being surprised that there were books about a magazine. Though the paper was originally ten pages, double-spaced, it seems shorter here. In any case, it is a fascinating story, even more so if you are a grammar geek.
The Century of the Comma Man: The Journalism of Harold Ross’s New Yorker
December 4, 1991
AMST (American Studies) 137B
Harold W. Ross, founder and editor of The New Yorker from 1925 until his death in 1951, once found out that a writer who worked for him, James Thurber, had done an impersonation of him at a party. Ross called Thurber into his office and growled, “I hear you were imitating me last night, Thurber. I don’t know what the hell there is to imitate—go ahead and show me.” Ross was a man who was so intriguing that he was ripe for imitating; the same can be said for his magazine, which has, inevitably, outlived its creator. An imitation lends itself to a definition, and a definition of the style and the appeal of the New Yorker is as complex as Ross himself.
The periodical that debuted on February 21, 1925 consisted of—and still consists of—that which “is commonly called sophisticated.” However, as many a New Yorker employee has noted over the years, the admirable level of sophistication towards which Ross intended to strive was in direct contradiction the actual level of worldliness he himself possessed. He was aware, and not ashamed, of this fact. As editor he felt his job was “encouraging people more talented than he to do their work better than they had hitherto known how to do it.” He combined a nurturing stance with a mildly belligerent one in a system that has been dubbed “benign despotism.” This is not to say that he was an ineffective editor; in fact, Ross “dearly loved a superlative,” and they were frequently used to describe him. Thurber said:
There were so many different Rosses, conflicting and contradictory, that the task of drawing him in words sometimes appears impossible, for the composite of all the Rosses should produce a single unmistakable entity: the most remarkable man I have ever known and the greatest editor.
It is interesting that Thurber revered Ross in a way that almost rendered Ross indescribable to him, particularly because, as Ross attested, “Nothing is indescribable.” Alexander Woollcott called Ross “the best editor in the world.”
Compliments were paid to Ross in strange ways. Many comments started off as insults, but before the sentence was completed, they had somehow turned into the most sincere forms of flattery. Ogden Nash reported, “He was an almost impossible man to work for—rude, ungracious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read; and I admire him more than anyone I have ever met...” John Duncan Miller, in less than a half-hour after meeting Ross, revealed, “I felt that Ross was the last man in the world who could edit the New Yorker. I left there realizing that nobody else in the world could.” Harpo Marx’s character study worked in reverse: “I loved Ross, he was wonderful company and his friendship was warm and personal. It was always a wonder to me that such an unworldly man could originate and edit the sophisticated New Yorker.
Ross set out to produce a magazine with a “chatty, informal quality.” He wanted to avoid serious issues; he equated the word “serious” with “grim,” and the New Yorker was to be anything but. Subjects he dismissed as unprintable were anything of an arty, literary, or (gasp!) intellectual nature. Perhaps the only exception was humor; the humor of the New Yorker was permitted to be intellectual, and most times, it was. In fact, on many occasions artists submitted cartoons that were beyond Ross’s level of comprehension. Part of the reason that the jokes of the cartoons often escaped Ross was because he was so meticulous in his portrayals in the magazine; he allowed no “indirection or physical implausibility in the text” and “exercised a similar strictness in respect to drawings.” His literal-mindedness blocked his capability to accept slightly eccentric ideas; unfortunately, cartoons depend on such eccentricity, and usually are not funny without it. Overheard at the Players Club, a man supposedly said, “[Ross’s] mind is uncluttered by culture.” An enlightening anecdote corroborating this claim: one day, he asked, in complete sobriety, “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?” Ross was a cunning, concerned man in terms of the content of the New Yorker; arguably, his sensibilities tapered off after that.
Ross was an organizational maestro; he insisted on nothing less than a flawlessly prepared magazine every week, no exceptions. The first two years of publication were confusing and financially disappointing, and ultimately were instrumental in Ross’s thrust to improve the efficiency and clarity of everything. (Although the New Yorker was the “outstanding flop of 1925,” it was “the only flop that kept on going.”) The principal tactic that Ross adopted to insure that there would be no mistakes was his overhauling of the checking department. One worker there once quipped, “If you mention the Empire State Building in [the magazine], Ross isn’t satisfied it’s still there until we call up and verify it.” Ross was notorious for accuracy; perhaps this explains his passion for facts over fiction. If a piece of information was factual, it was accurate, according to Ross.
The Rossian crusade for perfection was nearly synonymous with the Rossian preoccupation with punctuation. He shuddered at the staggering overuse of the words “little” and “pretty” for modification: “the building is pretty ugly and a little big for its surroundings.” Meanwhile, he was also known for his frequent insertion of phrases like “and such” and “otherwise” in copy to “achieve ease.” The biggest gripe that both he and his successor, William Shawn, had with respect to grammatical impeccability was the elusive comma. When questioning a particularly enigmatic application of a comma in a writer’s work, Shawn, a reserved and conservative yet brilliantly creative man, was likely to suggest that maybe the comma was not the mark that would best serve to convey the meaning of the sentence, although his gentle manner implied that he realized “what a lot of time and thought [had] gone into the comma.” Predictable were the days when Ross would barge into a writer’s office “deeply worried by the state of the world, or a comma, or something...” Typically, if it had to be one or the other, the New Yorker featured an excess of commas as opposed to using them sparingly (or, at the very least, only when appropriate). An English journalist once said that an apt title for Ross’s autobiography would be The Century of the Comma Man.
Since Ross’s goal was to provide his readers with a periodical of the highest quality, it would be helpful to indicate exactly what Ross did think of his readers. The New Yorker was meant to attract upper class, affluent customers who would be satisfied with the clever folly Ross wished to print. He got nervous not when the circulation plummeted, but rather when it thrived. Oddly, he felt that he could have too many followers. The readers were “diffident about writing letters”; no matter—the New Yorker would not print them anyway. Ross assumed that the potential letter-writers “[had] reached a level of sophistication...that [caused] them to avoid pressing a personal claim upon an author; they [withheld] the admiration...that less sophisticated readers would be apt to give.” Ross tended to win reader loyalty by approaching them subtly. In a verbose early advertisement seeking subscriptions, it was explained that although most of the paper for the New Yorker came from trees, the material best suited for the work was “an oblong sheet of green paper issued by the United States Government, and bearing the words: ‘Five Dollars.’ From this single scrap, enough paper can be procured to print 52 copies,” and have them subsequently mailed to one’s home.
Duplications (or striking resemblances) in the captions and content of cartoons were prevented by monitoring each new sketch. An office accountant was hired solely to “determine whether a just balance was being maintained” among the fact, the fiction, and all other categories of contributions. Several topics were essentially taboo: blatant sexual reference, profanity (despite Ross’s incessant oral spewing of it), and for a while, controversial or political issues. Ross was “inherently cautious” and shied away from taking stands; gradually, however, he became less rigid in his prohibitions and began to run the “long short story” and war coverage, most notably the expansive John Hersey article on the bombing of Hiroshima. Ross sacrificed his exclusively metropolitan focus when he found the world, including his readers, was changing, broadening. He then claimed, “This isn’t a magazine—it’s a Movement!” The New Yorker, around the time when Shawn inherited it, was poignantly summarized as “a humorous magazine that, holding up a mirror to life, everywhere reflects the darkest shadows and yet manages to make us laugh.” Although Ross was positive that the world was designed for the sole purpose of wearing him down, he still longed to amuse its inhabitants.
For a man short on phone etiquette (he announced who it was by a single, gruff “Ross”) and intolerably long on prejudices (he did not view women, homosexuals, and other minorities in a thoroughly favorable light), he proved to be an endearing and responsive editor who had a genuine interest in his writers’ work. Despite his limp handshake and morbid, “invariable morning greeting”—“One day nearer the grave”—he was an assertive, motivating figure who demanded the very best from authors and rarely got anything less. He cultivated a magazine really had no definite style because he urged each writer to develop his or her own style, each of which would be welcome in the New Yorker, as long as it was interesting, or funny, or both. His criticisms and opinions, even if volatile, had a way of refreshing one’s knowledge of himself or herself and renewing one’s interest in his or her work. Both he and Shawn were fond and proud of praising the work of any of their writers or artists, thereby restoring the confidence that surprisingly was not characteristic of some of them. The journalistic reputation of the New Yorker was of the utmost importance to Ross, yet he was humble enough to apologize if he pushed someone too hard to meet a deadline or to pursue a story.
Oliver Wolcott Gibbs felt that the average contributor to the New Yorker was semi-literate, and would “use three sentences where a word would do.” He devised a list of 31 Commandments of Editing, New Yorker style. All of them are blunt, and most of them are just as witty as the articles and illustrations of which they are designed to guide. The most notable of them follow: refrain from excessive use of adverbs, do not use alternatives for the word “said” (grunted, snorted), no clichés, no funny names (“Mr. Middlebottom”), do not begin sentences with “and” and “but,” do not write about other writers, do not spell words phonetically for local effect (“trubble”), no triple adjectives (“thin, sweet, gorgeous Melissa”), no awkward division of quotations (“I am going,” he said, “downtown.”), no humor at the expense of a drunk, adulterer, or homosexual, no “vaguely cosmic” last lines (“Suddenly he felt tired.”), no puns, no patronizing or “Godlike” tones, no French unless it is correct French, and “make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.” The very fact that such a list exists (and is no doubt enforced) underlines the idea that everything at the New Yorker is done for a reason, and every fact that is printed has been checked and rechecked. Every paragraph is examined, every sentence is scrutinized, and every word is selected with precision and delicacy.
Ring Lardner said, “I would rather write for the New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan for a dollar a word.” What lofty ideal or sacred tenet did this magazine represent to so many distinguished writers and artists, and why were they attracted to it practically unconditionally? Ross and then Shawn after him set such high standards for the New Yorker, and paid well for work of distinction. Once Ross offered Thurber $70 a week if he wrote anything. Later that same afternoon he phoned Thurber, informing him that the price had been upped to $90 a week. Thurber’s first check was for $100. Ross, a newspaperman then and always, explained, “I couldn’t take advantage of a newspaperman.” Ross’s first major endeavor in the world of journalism was editing the Army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. Despite his undying love for the New Yorker and the prosperity that it would eventually find, Ross still insisted that the Stars and Stripes was “the only place I ever really enjoyed working.” Judging by the effort that he put into and by the legacy that he left at the New Yorker, it is hard to believe that Ross could have meant what he said.
The impact of Ross’s magazine on America has been astounding; countless forms of journalism flood the newsstands, but only a select few are influential in any significant way. Among other things, the New Yorker was responsible for the switch from colored to white lights in the Empire State Building and for the cancellation of broadcasting commercials in Grand Central Station. The magazine that was created to present a “sharper satiric view of contemporary society than the established humorous magazines” succeeded in cementing a firm cornerstone in the foundation of twentieth century American journalism. Shawn credited Ross for the “literate, observant,...light-handed, timely writing that was to revolutionize the American magazine article.” Although it unmistakably caters to a wealthy clientele, it has matured into a publication that confronts issues of all classes and people in general. Although it was constructed around “the desperate and yet somehow joyous difficulties of ordinary daily New York life,” it has extended its scope to cover the entire world.
Ross “was married three times to women, and once, for keeps, to the New Yorker magazine.” Shawn, when naming those people who had contributed heroically over the years, said, “But at the source, abounding in promise, was Ross.” By January, 1951, Ross had seen many go, and many die. In January, 1951, he said to Thurber, “All of my friends are dead.” Less than a year later, so was Ross. Fortunately, however, his truest friend in the world, and perhaps his truest friend ever, was still alive then, and it is still alive today.
Here at the New Yorker by Brendan Gill, 1975.
The Years with Ross by James Thurber, 1957.
Cartoons [not posted in full here to respect copyright]
The following cartoons have been taken directly from the pages of the New Yorker and span seven decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s; I was unable to attain cartoons from the 1920s. I did not select them on the basis of their humor. Although most of them here are funny, they were all chosen because I feel that they exhibit the unique wit and style of the magazine, despite the fact that it claims that it does not represent any one distinctive style. Note the recurring themes of selfishness, subtlety, stupidity, arrogance, greed, and superficiality. Most of all, enjoy them.
(woman to firefighter) Bring down the little blue georgette with the white piqué collar cuffs.
(tour guide to elderly group) It’s a thousand years old, as some of you may recall.
(at newspaper printer) My God! They’ve left off the ‘New York Evening Journal’!”
(soldiers in a bar) Would you care to step outside and call my friend what you just called me?
(meeting where adman shows sign “Gimbel’s Hates Macy’s”) No, that isn’t quite it yet, Judson. We want something a little more subtle in its approach.
(house in French countryside with tank tracks leading up to it, bumping into it, reversing, and going around)
(man to another, stuck in traffic) Suppose you try to start my car. I’ll stay here and blow your horn for you.
(boss to couple kissing in hidden spot at company party) You’re fired! You, Preston, that is.
(editor to alien) It’s very interesting, but I’m afraid we only publish science fiction.
(woman with husband, looking at expensive car, to salesman) We’re just kidding ourselves, thank you.
(man to woman at party) You’re stupid. I like that in a woman.
(man to another holding gun to his own head at roulette table) Watch where you’re shoving that elbow, Mac!
(waitress to grouch) Let me see if I have it correctly, sir. To hell with the appetizer. A chopped sirloin that damn well better be rare. No goddam relish tray. Who cares which salad dressing, since they all taste like sludge?
(young man to young woman at party) You’re very cute, as am I.
(couples at party) And this is Mr. Kolkov, who...Heavens, Mr. Kolkov, I’ve forgotten what’s interesting about you!
(businessmen meeting) I would’ve recognized you anywhere, Mr. Davis. You look exactly like your corporation.
Son, you’re all grown up now. You owe me two hundred and fourteen thousand dollars.
(waiter) Is everything satisfactory here—I mean as befits our one little star in the New York ‘Times’?
“How to Delegate During a Recession”: You’re fired. Pass it on.
(sleazy-looking businessmen speaking in front of plummeting profits chart) But, hey, what is ‘recession’ but a word? And the same goes for ‘money,’ right? And how about ‘human beings’?
(Christmas) It’s a check for a hundred thousand dollars. Do you like it?
(end of paper)
Oh, and now my daughter hangs up New Yorker covers.
But classier, as befits a magazine of its stature—note the frames: