Seymour Krim Kneecaps the New Yorker
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November 8, 1962, Vol. VIII, No. 3
Who's Afraid of the New Yorker Now?
By Seymour Krim
There used to be a time, let me tell the younger generation, when the New Yorker had sting, when its latest short story was discussed all over town, when any self-respecting intellectual or chic-ster had to take a stand in relation to it. Out of curiosity and deadly habit I picked up the October 28 issue to see what kind of a review the new Albee play got, and John McCarten's sad, inadequate, slightly snotty two columns only confirmed what an increasing number of friends of mine -- and myself -- have thought:
Unless there is a revolution on 43rd Street, and it isn't likely, the New Yorker as we have known it has had it as a cultural force.
No matter how many irrelevant if statusy pieces the New Yorker publishes in the near future by W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, Anthony Eden, or Mary McCarthy, the magazine has become middle-aged, safe, and increasingly divorced from the action. The Albee review, by old retainer McCarten, brought this home with a forcefulness that to me illuminates in one lightning-flare all the stale attitudes and plump-bellied complacency that has overtaken this once great magazine. The review, if you've read it (and even if you haven't you can imagine it), is pleasant reading because McCarten -- following in the footsteps of the finest New Yorker staff writers -- uses a combination of the spoken and written language with that deceptive ease which comes from an admiration and imitation of informal style. That, I think, will be the New Yorker's greatest contribution to sophistication and the country's style at large when, in the dim future, the score is added up and the final judgment made.
McCarten is only the last of a long line of expert Ears, men who wrote the language with absolute attention to all of its nuances as they heard it spoken and who delighted in the craft of putting words together. Before McCarten came Joe Mitchell, Wolcott Gibbs, John McNulty, St. Clair McKelway, E.B. White, Geoffrey Hellman, names upon names who fifty years from today, with slight exceptions, might all be taken for the same person -- or the same person in different moods. Taste plus a literal shudder at being pretentious lay at the bottom of the creation of New Yorker style; and beneath this was, of course, the dominant figure of Harold Ross with his maniacal punctiliousness, but even more important, with his native American journalist's fear of being European or thickly, densely highbrow and hence a fraud. One cannot capsulize with justice the many fine points that went into the making of "New Yorker style" -- and anyone who had the experience of working there during the magazine's front-running days can tell of the incredible painstaking care and obsessiveness that neuroticized the very air -- but even using broad strokes to rough in the picture you can justly reduce the New Yorker world to one acute element: style.
So stylish was the New Yorker's image of itself that (as can be seen in the numberless "Profiles" written by anonymous machines who reduced art to science) the concern with appropriateness became over-refined to the point where style itself was devalued as brassy display and the article that "writes itself" was substituted as the high point of journalistic suavity. Never had a magazine in this country devoted such theatrical care to the subtleties of communication, carefulness, tact, finally draining the spirit of its staff down to the microscopic beauty of a properly placed comma and ultimately choking them in static detail and self-conscious poise, the original ideal of perfection having become in the late '50s and now '60s a perversion instead of a furthering of the journalist's duty to render reality.
But McCarten's review of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is pivotal in a much more crucial sense than yet touched upon because it unwittingly reveals the fear of the new that has threatened the New Yorker as an institution and its fine craftsmen as men and women -- as egos who had Position and are now foundering in the wave of "barbarism" that has overwhelmed their values. Even during the heyday of intellectual snobbery as canonized by the Partisan and Kenyon Reviews during the '40s, the New Yorker felt eminently protected, sure of itself, because the underlying axis of the magazine was always journalistic, concrete, and it excelled with the tangible as did no competitor. Harold Ross or his heir William Shawn might not understand or enjoy James Joyce or even Picasso, being expert newsmen first and artistic dilettantes second, but their roots in the American experience were unquestioned, ruggedly sustained by the journalist's reliance on facts and the exciting job of putting out a tough-minded but lightly handled organism every week. This security can no longer exist at the New Yorker; inroads were made by the selective inclusion of the eminent highbrows into its pages (Dwight Macdonald, Wilson, Delmore Schwartz, Roethke, Rosenberg, Marianne Moore, etc.), and while once they just decorated the cake devised by Chef Ross, who was always suspicious of them, at this point they brought with them an ill wind of disturbing thought. With the eclecticism of the assured and wealthy, the New Yorker thought it could head into the future with literary self esteem protected by this fence of accepted intellectuals, who threatened openly with words, but it was unprepared for the burst of new values crouched barely behind these older, more hypocritically courteous men -- hypocritical only in that they were in as deadly earnest as the young baby-throwing Albees, Ginsbergs, and John Cages but spoke in the university-groomed, button-downed manner of their period and therefore could pass as white.
It is the new wave, in every sense, that has cast the New Yorker adrift from every familiar mooring and turned it, out of defensiveness, into a castrated and even reactionary publication. As we read it now, there is more life and inventiveness in the advertising than in the body copy; from the middle of the magazine to the end you will come upon pages with 5 1/2 inches width of advertising to three of writing, and the painful thing to anyone in the business is the fact that the writing wastes even the petty amount of space it can still command by the echo of the old colloquial style, using its now trivial diction and informalities to fill up precious space instead of revolutionizing the style to fit the reality. Magazines live in the world, and no one who understands the bitter economics of magazine publishing would fault a publication for having the beautiful cushion of heavy advertising to rest on; the New Yorker earned its present wealth the hard way, and one's professional sympathies go out to it on the business level because without revenues you either perish or distort yourself; but the kaleidoscope of four-color advertising and its layout, makeup, zing, thrill, even slickness, from the middle to the back of the New Yorker, shames the lack of equal life in the editorial copy and makes the irony of this demise of brilliance that much more pitiable. Just recall the stories of Ross not allowing the advertising people even to walk on the editorial floor; and now they have the power, not only because they bring in the gelt, but because they are negotiating the basic energy and flashy beauty that brightens our eyes. Soon they will truly control the New Yorker, blunt its last edge; and the usurpation will be just, because these men are as determined as Ross's breed and are not kidding themselves while the diehard editorial neo-classicists, the punctuation castratos who have been there 15 to 25 years, are living in a world that no longer exists.
I said above that what I take to be the demise of the New Yorker is pitiable, and you could only feel that way if you once worked there -- as did William Gaddis, Truman Capote, Chandler Brossard, myself, a whole host of interesting writers now pushing forty -- or if you were susceptible to the tremendous superego-like authority that the magazine exerted on young literary types and tastemakers in the '40s. But the emotion opposite to pity is contempt and it is in this vein that I would like to conclude. Contempt, viciousness, snottiness, the reduction of your foe to absurdity, enormous distance between you and the thing talked about, dirty fun -- all these things come out of fear, and it was fear that John McCarten demonstrated in his review of the new Albee play. Fear is not a pleasant emotion to witness, but it is even worse when it is disguised with pseudo-wisecracks which leave your reader bewildered as to why you don't attempt to get into the muscle of what you're discussing. The Albee play (which I haven't yet seen), and what Mr. Albee represents, seems to me an almost too-perfect symbol of everything that is wrong with the New Yorker, and I would like to trace it through.
This was Edward Albee's first play uptown, the city had been buzzing all summer long with news of the impending event -- news, mind you, that once the New Yorker when it believed in its title would have eaten up and happily passed along to its readers -- and everyone hip to anything in culture knew that this was more than just another play. It was a dramatic story from a variety of angles, the Outsider pitted against the Big Street, the fact that Albee had never faced the "test" of a full-evening-length play, the question of whether the tone of the times was really ripe for a savagely challenging avant-gardist to hold his own in the hardnose world of unions and box office, the fact that here was no European import but one of our very own (so slender, so few) who was going out to slay the Philistine dragon. Much was riding on this debut quite apart from the line-by-line merits of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and John McCarten withdrew from the entire excitement of the occasion, treated it with the coolness of catatonia, put it down (which in itself is immaterial) in terms that don't apply, and brought off the most pathetic crack of the week in weaseling out of mature criticism with the words "a vulgar mishmash." What Irishman is kidding what Jew, and haven't we all come a long way from the vulgar potato famines, eh John?
It is not McCarten as an individual alone who is intended to bear the brunt of this obituary; it is McCarten as the representative -- the very able representative, by the way -- of an entire editorial way of life that has passed its peak and is descending as ungracefully as every real power does when the true gism gives out. This is not to say that the New Yorker will not coast with the already established winners for a decade or more and fur the minds of its readers with the warm feel of occasional mink; sporadic excellent pieces, their value on the literary exchange having been appraised long in advance, will no doubt tastefully appear and momentarily restore faith to the worried parishioners; but the virility, adventurousness, connection with the living tissue of your audience can only be restored by rebirth. This is not about to happen in the near future and could only occur after the present New Yorker trust fades away and twenty years hence stirs the fires of someone who buys the title and is then animated, directed by the legend of a memorable past joined with a love of the living present.
That love -- today a savoring of horror because we have had to live with it, a true delectation of the dislocated age we inhabit, an elastic and surreal response to cruelty and ugliness instead of the desperate and unreal attempt to duck its existence -- is absent in the very motor of the present-day New Yorker. It's creators are over-aged, over-insulated; the truly gorgeous notion of style which they gave to America has invisibly changed into a new style which they are afraid of and don't understand. The magazine is merely cruising now, because it has no place to go except to stay afloat and collect the reward for endurance. But every now and then you'll run across one of the pop-gun artists, like John McCarten, firing away as in the good old days, and then all of a sudden you'll feel embarrassed for the man because he is such a goddamned fool and is so proud of it...
Good night, sweet sheet.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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