- What We Talk About When We Talk About The New Yorker
“‘He didn’t love me the way you love me. I’m not saying that. But he loved me. You can grant me that, can’t you?”‘—Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” 1
In 1956, Mrs. Mary Stewart of Humboldt, Nebraska, sat down to write a letter to The New Yorker: “Since we have been subscribing since 1926 or ‘27, I feel I can address you as a close friend. I just want to thank you for the Febraury 25th [anniversary issue] cover. The sight of Eustace Tilley cheered me, so unchanged in a chaotic world (from a doctor’s wife in Albany to a widow in Nebraska). The cover that Stew and I always looked forward to as a sort of milestone in your life and ours warmed my heart. Please don’t change, ever.” 2 Mrs. Stewart’s letter, and dozens of others like it, testify to the community that cohered around The New Yorker during William Shawn’s tenure as editor from 1952 to 1987. Among the organizing principles of this community were intellectual acumen and good taste, but both of these were subordinate to a sense of emotional connectedness, of mutual respect and trust, and love. When he left the magazine, Shawn defined the bonds that had knit this little world together and invited writers and readers to transcend their proscribed roles within the impersonal economic structure of the modern literary culture industry: 3
Whatever our individual roles at The New Yorker . . . we have built something quite wonderful together. Love has been the controlling [End Page 253] emotion, and love is the essential word. We have done our work with honesty and love. The New Yorker, as a reader once said, has been the gentlest of magazines. Perhaps it has also been the greatest, but that matters far less. What matters most is that you and I, working together, taking strength from the inspiration that our first editor, Harold Ross, gave us, have tried constantly to find and say what is true. I must speak of love once more. I love you all, and will love you as long as I live. 4
Together, Mr. Shawn and Mrs. Stewart defined the principles by which the New Yorker community operated from the early 1950s through the late 1980s: within it, the inspiration and constancy of history helped to ward off the encroachments of a dubious present, and the reward of that struggle was an intimate, loving connection across the impersonal vastness of time and space. That sense of constancy and connection and, above all, the wonder of its uniqueness in the modern world, is what we talk about when we talk about The New Yorker.
Given our understanding of the self-interested nature of for-profit literary production, it seems counterintuitive and almost absurd to talk about a magazine and its readers being joined together through bonds of “love” or “inspiration.” This is particularly the case since so many twentieth-century magazines aimed at the middle classes have depended on ersatz affective appeals to win their readers’ confidence and thus bolster their own selling power. 5 Does this tendency within magazines to manipulate emotion mean that they cannot ever generate real emotion? Does their success in winning consumers for the market mean that they can never offer a point of resistance to it? In other words, given what we know about the nature of for-profit twentieth-century magazines and their relationships with their anxious middle-class readers, can we ever see Mrs. Stewart’s “love” for The New Yorker as anything other than a compensatory fantasy meant to gloss over or to deny the realities of producer-consumer relationships within the modern culture industry? Can we ever see Mr. Shawn’s “love” for the magazine and its readers as more than a calculated strategy to increase reader loyalty by flattering his audience’s craving for cultural distinction? If we hope ever to attain an adequately nuanced understanding of the way that sophisticated popular literary culture works in the lives of upper-middle-class men and women...