- Writing for The New Yorker: Critical Essays on an American Periodical ed. by Fiona Green
The New Yorker magazine has always been both an exemplary and an idiosyncratic publication. It began as part of a wider boom in "smart" magazines in the early twentieth century, but it was a product marked by the taste of its founder Harold Ross, exceptionally cohesive in its editorial policy and written tone. Pitched at the intersection between middlebrow popularity and highbrow cachet, between luxury advertising and editorial independence, the magazine's reputation made it both an appealing and a troubling publication site for writers at midcentury who otherwise are not known for middlebrow work. The New Yorker has accordingly challenged critics to place its discursive strategies; they have sometimes turned to paradox and neologism in their struggle to encompass its aesthetic. In the early sixties, the magazine's distinctive editorial voice allowed it to escape Dwight MacDonald's otherwise global excoriation of masscult.1 More recently Trysh Travis has coined the hybrid term "high middlebrow" to place it between two more traditional fields.2 Louis Menand describes its style as edging near contradiction: "the New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an anti-sophisticate was the mark of true sophistication."3
These tensions raise questions about how to approach the New Yorker. How far should critics dwell on the magazine's cohesive style and Ross's editorial control? How fully should they stress its place within a broader media ecology? How far must they locate its aesthetics within political and cultural frames like the Cold War or smart set sophistication? How far emphasize the concerns of individual writers who published there? Writing aimed [End Page 246] at a broad audience has usually been centripetal, feeding the market for biographies of geniuses—Ben Yagoda's About Town, Thomas Kunkel's Genius in Disguise—where more academically oriented work—Faye Hammill's Sophistication, Mary Corey's The World Through a Monocle—has tended to embed the magazine in a periodical genre or historical moment.4
Writing for The New Yorker: Critical Essays on an American Periodical, drawn from a 2013 Cambridge symposium, is a welcome collection precisely because it raises the problem of how to manage this tension between singularity and its dispersal explicitly. The introduction is especially acute, connecting the problem to periodical form itself: "A weekly magazine is arguably no more than the sum of its ephemeral issues and its constituent parts, yet with The New Yorker a singular style and a recognisable ethos famously transcends its time bound particulars" (5). While the essays collected here vary according to the interests of individual authors analyzed, brought together they do indeed test out what the editors describe as the "reciprocal relation of part to whole" (5), as they analyze the intersecting contingencies, organizational structures, and literary concerns of writers that composed every issue.
Writing for The New Yorker joins in the recent expansion of periodical studies and the "larger material turn in literary and textual scholarship," particularly in modernism (7). It also makes the most of two important moments of expanded archival access. In 1994 the New Yorker Records collection became available for study at the New York Public Library; in 2005 the magazine digitized its back issues, making it fully searchable (and still more pleasurably, browsable) online. Scholars now have fuller access to conversations among writers, cartoonists, editors, and business staff as they planned and negotiated each issue, and a far more expansive view of the juxtapositions and continuities generated by each issue's layout. Writing for The New Yorker uses this new material to expand existing scholarly work on the magazine's complex relationship to the marketplace, and to consider its attempt to balance levity with an increasing seriousness, primarily after World War II. It also, especially rewardingly, considers how writers dealt with what it would mean to publish in The New Yorker as they thought about their own aesthetic principles. Previous work has of course discussed individual writers' relation to the magazine; but the new essays...