Introduction to 'The New Yorker's Mr. Shawn'
The mystery of William Shawn's origins -- a source of considerable curiosity in the literary world throughout Shawn's long career -- is finally solved by one of his writers
WILLIAM Shawn worked at The New Yorker magazine for fifty-four years. He began there in 1933, became the editor in 1952, and left in 1987, when a company that had bought the magazine forced him to resign. His tenure as editor coincided, roughly, with the years of the Cold War. It is safe to say that he was the pre-eminent magazine editor in the world during that time. Among his gifts was a faultless ear for Cold War-era apocalyptic, audible in the titles of famous works he edited, such as Hiroshimaand Silent Spring and The Fate of the Earth and The Fire Next Time. Mostly, though, his tastes in writing were hard to categorize. He published the stories and novels of J. D. Salinger, and Truman Capote's true-crime classic, In Cold Blood, and movie reviews by Pauline Kael that changed not just movie reviewing but reviewing in general. And E. B. White and Hannah Arendt and Edmund Wilson and Milan Kundera and Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky and Harold Brodkey and Donald Barthelme and Janet Flanner and S. J. Perelman, George Steiner and Peter Handke and Philip Roth and Jamaica Kincaid and John McPhee and Joseph Mitchell -- the list of distinguished writers he published could go on and on. He loved new writing, read quickly, and almost always knew what to do to a piece to make it better. Often his editing amounted to an inspired sort of doing nothing, of just letting a piece run. Harold Ross, The New Yorker's founder and first editor, always referred to himself simply as "Ross,"and so did everybody else. Perhaps following that tradition, his successor called himself and signed himself "Shawn."A contributor might pick up his telephone and hear the small voice at the other end say, "Shawn here."But the contributor always replied, "Hello, Mr. Shawn." The honorific "Mr." seems to have been awarded him by popular acclaim among his colleagues out of respect, and in deference to his own politeness. He was a shy, formal man, and he took self-effacement so far that he met megalomania coming back the other way. He seldom talked about himself -- people who worked with him for decades knew little more of his biography than the few facts anyone could read about him in Who's Who. He gave almost no interviews, and almost never let himself be photographed. No record that he ever made a speech in public can be found. Harold Ross sometimes gave away studio head shots of himself on which he had scrawled personalized epigrams. Shawn would not have done that in a million years. His style was a pervasive anonymity, and negative capability in the extreme.
Probably he would have preferred that nobody write anything about him after he was gone. Probably, but not certainly -- he lived surrounded by rules, but kept a wary eye on them, and recklessly broke them himself once in a while if he felt the urge. In the article that follows, Ved Mehta, who was a staff writer at The New Yorker for thirty-three years, describes the romantically American background from which Shawn came. -- I. F.
Ian Frazier is the author of (1994) and (1996).
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Introduction to "The New Yorker's Mr. Shawn"; Volume 281, No. 4; page71.