HERE AT THE NEW YORKER
by Brendan Gill
Random House, $12.95
The New Yorker, which sauntered by its fiftieth anniversary in February, has entertained and informed us during a half century under the supreme direction of two editors, Harold Ross, its founder, and the dedicated William Shawn, who succeeded him. In the beginning the magazine was not an assured success. Its publisher, Raoul Fleischmann, was to put up $425,000 to keep it going, and on one depressing weekend he was ready to suspend publication. An article by Alice Duer Miller, defending the Younger Generation in its determination to be unchaperoned, helped to turn the tide, but Fleischmann had to pump $300,000 more into it before Ross and his talented crew were safely off the rocks.
Fresh from Yale, and exuberantly confident. Brendan Gill sold his first story to The New Yorker in 1936, when he was twenty-two and the magazine was eleven. He was offered employment in a tiny, windowless office, and to the magazine he brought his tireless versatility and the sunniest temperament on the staff. “The first rule of life,” he writes, “is to have a good time,”and the second, “to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so,”On these principles he characterizes the men and the women who made The New Yorker during his long affiliation, beginning with his contrasting portraits of Ross and Shawn.
Because of his crotchets, Ross is the more fun to read about. As an editor, Ross’s “posture was that of a belligerent": for those writing the “Talk of the Town" his advice was. “if you can’t be funny, be interesting,”and with his gimlet eye he would annotate revisions with the demand: “Given facts will fix.” On the other hand, “Shawn’s attitude toward writing, and by extension toward writers as a class, has always been that of reverence.”
The compulsion to rewrite seems to have grown. In the early years contributors as talented as Clarence Day, Dorothy Parker, Corev Ford, and Bob Benchlev were given their head: but later, especially in fiction, the supervision became finicky, resulting at times in a taffy consistency. The editorial pressure at The New Yorker was more severe than at any other periodical I know of, and for Ross it had its happiest fruition in the unique teamwork of F. B. White and James Thurber. Ross, says Gill, “saw his job as encouraging people more talented than he to do their work better than they had hitherto known how to do it, largely by being harder on themselves than thev had been accustomed to be.”Such was the policy Shawn inherited and has extended.
The book is a portrait gallery of writers and artists, as reserved as Wolcott Gibbs, as abrasive as Dorothy Parker and the aging Sinclair Lewis, as fantastic as Peter Arno and Thurber, as thorough as Edmund Wilson, as beloved as Benchley and Andv White. Gill raises the question, which he cannot answer, of win so many of the best were heavy drinkers who died in their fifties, and for whom in some cases The New Yorker “took care of the funeral expenses.”
In this company Gill was the white-haired boy. With money from a generous father and a sanguine temperament he went happily ahead, writing his own books and more copy for the magazine than any other contributor before him. Here he plays his favorites: he despised Woollcott and infuriated John O’Hara, rates White as much more indispensable than Thurber, and lavishes such praise on Shawn as must make the editor wince.
THURBER: A Biography
by Burton Bernstein
Dodd Mead, $15.00
E. B. White, writes Gill, helped to form Thurber. and bv persistence compelled Ross to accept Thurber’s drawings, but he was never exempt from the cruelties Thurber inflicted when he was drinking. This streak of revenge, hitting back at the world for the loss of his sight, is one of the characteristics that Burton Bernstein analyzes in his long, patiently understanding biography. He points out that in Thurber’s most celebrated book. My Life and Hard Times, with its delightfully ludicrous account of his family and boyhood, he was exorcising the devils that had tormented him. never realizing what his shafts would do to his parents and his brothers back home.
By inheritance a slow starter, young Jim was further retarded when at the age of eight he was nearly blinded by an arrow shot by his older brother William. He needed gumption to make his way in high school, and in his first two years at Ohio State University he was still a gawkv nonentity. It was Elliott Nugent, a popular classmate and a playwright-to-be, who rescued Thurber. praised his writing, and kept him coming during his delayed adolescence. His infantile letters to Nugent, which the biographer quotes in full, show how slowly Thurber arrived at self-possession. His eventual marriage to the dominating Althea was little help, as she could not appreciate the wild humor that was beginning to assert itself in his writing. They bickered incessantly and the arguments Thurber lost at home he won later in his drawings of the virago in his war against women.
Not until he was thirty-three did Thurber come into his own. Then, writes Bernstein. “He had a real career. a real father (Ross), a real brother (White), and more influential instruments of change than he could handle. All he needed was a real wife.”He was to find her. after a divorce, in Helen Wismer, a woman whose resilience and sympathy were his staving power as the world began to blur and the nightlong drinking began.
By all accounts Thurber must have been an enchanting companion, but somehow that charm does not come through. What does come through Mr, Bernstein’s unsparing study is the imaginative way in which an uninhibited humorist eonverted his frustrating experiences into supreme comedy.
by Nadine Gordimer
The conflict in the Transvaal between the English and Afrikaners, the oppression of the blacks and their white sympathizers, together with the extravagant wealth of South Africa, have produced in Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer two of the finest living novelists. Miss Gordimer’s new novel is, I think, her best, remarkable for its atmosphere, its breadth, and its compelling sympathy.
The title is ironic, Mehring, the protagonist—“with all that money from pig iron,”as his mistress taunts him-is a man who has built up his possessions at the cost of love. His wife has divorced him and remarried in New York; his younger mistress (also fled) and Terry, his seventeen-year-old son, are both rebels against apartheid. Failing to master women as he does his property, Mehring finds solace in his weekend farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg, which he bought as a tax write-off but which now has become his blind. In his reverie, lying in the reeds beyond the third pasture, or pacing the fields that have been newly burned, he arraigns those who have deserted him. defending himself against their criticism that hurt. “My—possessions— are enough—for—me.”
It is in character that Mehring’s farm, to justify its existence and that of those who work on it, “must be a going concern.”But only fitfully does he realize how intimately he is involved with his dependents: his relations with Jacobus, his black overseer, are remarkably drawn, and so with the other blacks in the kraal; even with the Indians who must pay hush money to run their shops and who turn to him for protection. He avoids his Afrikaner neighbors, but he cannot avoid the disdain of his mistress and the resistance of his son whom he yearns for but cannot reach. On his flights to Japan as on his drives to the farm, he likes to think that he is “conserving not exploiting.”but his loneliness gives him the lie.
What this novel reveals so skillfully is not only the sensuous strength of Mehring, but the tension, the humanity, and the held-atbay danger threatening the intricate society of which he is a part.
THE KILLER ANGELS
by Michael Shaara
The best way to write about a battle is to tell it as the men who went through it saw it and felt it— and that is what Michael Shaara has done in this stirring, brilliantly interpretive novel. The Killer Angels. It is written from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and their lieutenants, disclosing only as much as they knew at the time, and using the words of the men themselves, drawn from their letters and documents. The author keeps the field glasses on his particular heroes, in the Gray and in the Blue, and by their acts he judges them, admiringly or with compassion for their mistakes. The bravado of General Pickett and his Virginians may seem overblown, but it was the rhetoric of that day.
Most of the events that led to Gettysburg are common knowledge. Lee. having terribly defeated Joe Hooker in the spring of 1862, was confident he could defeat Hooker anywhere. He had lost his superb deputy. Stonewall Jackson, at Chancellorsville, and had no other general as able; but his army was in good condition, and very swiftly he slipped his 70,000 men across the Potomac. He had to relieve the pressure on Virginia and get his men well fed. And when they reached the fat, unmolested farms of Pennsylvania, they ate their fill; they took all the fresh horses they needed, and their approach put the War Department in Washington and the northern newspapers in an uproar. Lee spread his army in a vast semicircle, and for once in his career he was overconfident. That vain, dashing cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart, was entrusted to guard Lee’s flank and keep him informed of the Union movements and when Stuart sent him no word. Lee felt secure. For six days he had no knowledge of where Stuart was.
The unsuspected factors are what the novel stresses: Lee did not know that General George Meade, an illtempered, stubborn fighter, had replaced the intimidated Hooker: he did not know that Meade’s army had crossed the Potomac, unseen by Stuart, and was in hot pursuit. He did not know that the Confederate cavalry—which were his eyes—had gone raiding and were already far out of touch. Finally, Lee’s health was precarious-he had suffered a heart attack and the sleepless nights ahead were to weaken his judgment.
The Union Army was the first to reach Gettysburg, and thanks to General Reynolds and Co1onel Chamberlain, a Yankee professor from Bowdoin College who was to win the Medal of Honor, they seized the heights, Big and Little Round Top, and they never let go. As the fighting intensified there was a fateful clash of wills between Longstreet, who at the end of the first day wanted to maneuver so as to attack Meade in the rear, and Lee, who, missing his cavalry, believed his best chance was a frontal assault. It was. like Waterloo, a near thing, and in the words of Winston Churchill: “Thus ended the great American Civil War. which must upon the whole be considered the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts of which till then there was record.”