Friday, January 30, 2009

"The New Yorker"

REQUIRED READING: The New Yorker Magazine

My introduction to The New Yorker was made by a nice young man who brought me an issue in 1982 when I was hospitalized following a serious injury. He hoped some good reading material would help me pass the weeks of bed rest. This particular issue which I remember clearly – a Sempé drawing of a cat looking out a window in Paris on its cover and a profile of the great jazz musician, Thelonius Monk – was the beginning of a long love affair. Except for a brief few years, I’ve been a subscriber ever since.

The New Yorker was the brainchild of Harold Ross, an self-taught journalist, and his wife Jane Grant, a writer for the New York Times. Back in the day, the literati frequently ate lunch at the Algonquin Hotel on west 44th Street in Manhattan and a notorious clique dubbed themselves the Vicious Circle. Mr. and Mrs. Ross, Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker, and Harpo Marx and many others involved in New York’s rich cultural life were part of this group, which later came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. Imagine the smartest, funniest, best informed, and most verbally adept people in America having a few martinis and you get an idea of where the energy for The New Yorker came from. It was a heady time and the resulting magazine – designed to inform, entertain, and energize the reader – established a unique presence in American journalism and literary life. As editor, Mr. Ross obtained financial backing from Raoul Fleischmann, founder of Fleishmann’s Baking Company (whose family retained ownership of the publication until selling it in 1985). Within a few years of its inaugural issue, The New Yorker had garnered a loyal readership by publishing some of the most important writers of the last 100 years, including J. D. Salinger, E. B. White, John Updike, and more recently T. C. Boyle, David Sedaris, and Adam Gopnik.

A typical issue of The New Yorker begins with a detailed listing of cultural happenings within the city – concerts, art exhibits, dance performances, theatre, operas, cinema, poetry readings, etc. A recently added feature is “Tables for Two” on dining. “The Talk of the Town” is no longer about the city per se but has become national in scope and is where the editors discuss issues of importance and interest to well-informed people. The bulk of the magazine is some combination of journalism, humor, essays, fiction, poetry, and cultural reviews. Scattered throughout the pages are what the magazine is probably most famous for: the cartoons.

While The New Yorker has had five editors since its inception, and chronicled the most rapidly changing century in human history, it has maintained many long-held traditions such as The Talk of the Town, Personal Histories, Annals, and letters from far flung correspondents. Each cover is an original illustration by one of the many artists who collectively have given the magazine its look. Rea Irwin drew the first cover which featured a top-hatted dandy looking down his nose through a monocle at a butterfly. This was a bit of artistic irony as the magazine was anything but effete; it was all about the American literary and creative spirit. The dandy soon became a personality in his own right and was given the name Eustace Tilley. Eustace continues to grace the cover every February on the issue nearest to the magazine’s anniversary. Cover artists can be quite creative in how they portray him; like the magazine he changes with the times but remains true to himself.

Of The New Yorker’s five editors, Tina Brown, who took over in 1992, was the most controversial. Until her reign, The New Yorker had had no major stylistic changes. It was all black and white with line drawings rather than photographs and had stable of long-term writers. Ms. Brown made an indelible mark by hiring Richard Avedon as the magazine’s first staff photographer. New Yorker loyalists took an immediate dislike to her and were outraged by many of her other changes to the magazine, in particular reducing the number of printed words. As Harold Ross originally described it, the magazine “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” Ms. Brown agreed with that statement, but decided to appeal to a wider (i.e., younger and less discerning) readership. A significant change she brought about was permitting certain words which heretofore were not considered necessary to good writing. Under Tina Brown’s editorship, 79 writers were let go to make room for 50 new writers of her choosing. Long time New Yorker subscribers, who liked the magazine the way it was, considered Ms. Brown to be “vulgar” and were dismayed at how she seemed to “dumbing down” the magazine. She argued that she cleaned house and brought life back into a periodical that was dying. In her defense, readership increased by approximately 30 per cent while she was editor, and the photographs in the magazine are a nice change. Love her or hate her, the magazine survived her six year tenure and the writing has returned to its former high standards thanks to current editor, David Remnick, formerly of the Washington Post, although the magazine does print the previously unprintable words.

If we ignore the Tina Brown years, most issues of the magazine are worth reading from cover to cover. Because the magazine is published 47 times per year, weekly except for five double issues, subscribers usually have stacks of unread or partially read magazines throughout their houses. The magazine is too good to throw away and you never know when you might need a supply of reading material (see above). The current issue, in celebration of the season, focuses on politics: why Obama won, why McCain lost, and what’s next. Each piece is an example of what journalism should be: painstakingly researched, objective, carefully edited, and factually accurate. If you have had enough of politics, this issue, like most others, includes fiction, poetry, and reviews of the art scene. Or you can browse the cartoons; there is something for everyone.

Across the last 83 years, The New Yorker has published many works which have raised public awareness of important topics. For example, Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, published in three consecutive issues in 1962, explained the hazards of pesticides, awakening environmental awareness in the United States. If it were not for Silent Spring, many familiar animal and plant species would have disappeared, including our beloved bald eagle. Two decades earlier, in 1946, one year after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, John Hersey published “Hiroshima” in the magazine. Then editor, William Shawn discussed ideas for a report on the human dimension of the bombing with Mr. Hersey, a journalist and author who had grown up in China and was working as an overseas correspondent. Mr. Hersey’s article featured six survivors of the attack, a widow with three children, a missionary, a Methodist pastor, a surgeon, an office clerk, and a physician, chronicling their experiences immediately before, during, and after the bombing. The resulting piece, 31 thousand words in all, took up almost the entire issue and immediately sold out.

The New Yorker has never shied away from controversy and Seymour Hersh’s piece on Abu Ghraib may be one of the most shocking exposés in the magazine’s history. Mr. Hersh’s reporting reveals a military prison run amok where a leadership vacuum reduced the wardens to savages like something out of Lord of the Flies. By the time the article went to print, CBS’s 60 Minutes and most national newspapers had already shown several of the photographs the soldiers took of themselves committing atrocities in an apparently Bacchanalian frenzy. Mr. Hersh’s article sought to understand how and why Abu Ghraib deteriorated into a national disgrace. While The New Yorker article offers no cover for the people who committed the abuses, it is damning of that entire prison operation all the way up the chain to the Commander-in-Chief. How could a nation as great as ours permit such human rights abuses? That is the big question Mr. Hersh wants us to grapple with. In addition, he wants his readers to understand the state of temporary insanity that the prison wardens fell into as they tried to make sense of the inhumanities they were witness to and participants in. Mr. Hersh’s article reveals how easy it is to cross the line between human and savage when moral leadership is absent. We all hope that in similar circumstances we would choose the high road, but most of us have never experienced anything remotely like Abu Ghraib.

Unlike pure news magazines, The New Yorker gives its “far flung correspondents” the time and resources they need to dig for facts and the details to support them. It is the details that often tell the real story, but it is the details that daily news reports by necessity leave out. Very few of the crises facing our world can be reduced to multiple choice questions. To solve a problem, first we must understand it in all of its complexity, because without clear, unbiased fact-finding and reporting our leaders will never move beyond political posturing and we, the people, will never know if a solution is viable. Being well informed and able to think beyond simplified rhetoric is a true act of patriotism: our country can only remain great if we care enough to keep watch over our elected and appointed leaders.

We Americans love our country, warts and all, and most often we express that love by waving flags, singing the National Anthem (or God Bless America), and expressing our personal philosophies on our vehicles. The New Yorker is a different celebration of our country: it exists thanks to the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. Unlike many nations, our citizens have permission to express themselves without fear of censorship or worse. While artists, writers, and musicians are a dime a dozen, only a few are doing work with the potential to become classics. The New Yorker is not afraid to look for the merits in controversial works, and a good example of this is the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images of male genitalia and homosexuality were so upsetting that his masterpieces were almost overlooked. Shock value aside, Mr. Mapplethorpe’s work sells in the six figures at auction and is in some of the world’s greatest photography collections. By seeking out today’s cutting edge artists, writers, and musicians, The New Yorker helps us see beyond our personal belief systems so we can understand what is happening in our culture and why it is important and worthy of our attention.

If the idea of subscribing to The New Yorker is daunting, here’s a suggestion: next time you find yourself with time to kill, pick up a copy. Not only will it make the time pass more quickly it might just change your life. Remember that young man who brought me The New Yorker while I was in the hospital? I married him.

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