- “The Magazine That Is Considered the Best in the World”: Muriel Spark and the New Yorker
I would really like to get something in The New Yorker before I die. I do so admire that particular, polished, rich, brilliant style.—Sylvia Plath, 17 January 1956
Muriel Spark’s relationship with the New Yorker began officially in 1957, cultivated by fiction editor Rachel MacKenzie; Spark’s first short story “The Ormolu Clock” was published in the magazine three years later. By 1961, the New Yorker devoted a full issue to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—publishing the novel in its entirety. Spark would ultimately publish numerous short stories, poems, and excerpts of novels—as well as reviews and autobiographical pieces—in the magazine over the next five decades.
This essay develops new contexts for understanding Spark’s works, as well as Scottish fiction more generally, by examining Spark’s relationship with the New Yorker. As Scotland becomes an international and cosmopolitan space through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, situating Scottish writing in its world context becomes increasingly important. Spark herself defied conventional cataloging, but the tenor of Spark criticism tends to favor aspects [End Page 595] of thematic approach (Catholicism, for example) or view her work in light of national application (the so-called “Scottish novels”). Yet Spark’s incisive eye and sharp satire found purchase in a multitude of genres, and her contribution to metafictional play and narrative ironies falls outwith such easily-fenced, conventional criticisms.
The paucity of Spark’s own autobiographical output post-Curriculum Vitae makes it all the more important to glean information about the international reception of her work and about other aspects of her life and career through her decades-long affiliation with the New Yorker. The relationship lasted throughout her writing career; her first appearance dates from 1954, via a small mention in the New Yorker’s “Books: Briefly Noted” review section that lists a critical work she co-edited with Derek Stanford (Wilson 132–33). Examining an overlooked portion of Spark’s biography during her New York years (1962–1967) allows a more complete picture of the contexts in which she lived and worked, and understanding the extent of her connection with the magazine draws critical attention to Spark’s legacy and influence in modern fiction by giving readers an entré to Spark’s most prolific writing period, 1957–1967. In short, both the unpublished correspondence with the magazine’s editors and pieces by Spark published in the magazine itself afford a new corpus; this material reveals aspects of Spark and her oeuvre that widen the range of contexts in which her writing—and by extension, Scottish post-war writing—can be understood.
Writing in her 1992 autobiography Curriculum Vitae, Spark examines her relationship with the American literary magazine:
In March , The New Yorker wrote that they had admired my story “The Portobello Road” which had appeared in Macmillan’s Winter’s Tales. They wondered “if you won’t let us consider some of your stories for publication.” This started my long and rewarding association with the magazine that is still considered the best in the world. Twice they have given up the whole of the week’s issue to publish one of my novels in its entirety.(211)
Her response has the wryly-direct tone also used to recount the startling death of her characters; it is also tantalizingly coy. The New Yorker did publish two entire novels: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the 14 October 1961 issue, and The Driver’s Seat in the 16 May 1970 issue, but it also substantially serialized The Mandelbaum Gate over four issues in 1965 and portions of her autobiography in the magazine’s “Personal History” section in 1989–1992. Indeed, Spark’s comment about the magazine belies a rather striking fact: she appears in no less than seventeen issues over the course of the 1960s, [End Page 596] and primary material by Spark graces nearly forty issues of the New Yorker total, beginning in 1960 and ending in 2003.
Spark’s Early Connection and Correspondence with the New Yorker
Harold Ross established the New Yorker in...