From hack to ultimate editor

Genius in Disguise
April 11, 1997

Many agree on the breadth and depth of The New Yorker's manifold impact on American journalism, literature, and culture. Where they do not agree is on the subject of the man behind the magazine. Six full-length books have been devoted to Harold Ross and his magazine. Four of them (one by a Ross ex-wife) were written by "insiders" at the magazine, and their books are as much about their authors as they are about their subject. Each portrays the editor as variously tactless, uneducated, intolerant and lucky, while describing the magazine as the paragon of refinement, pristine writing and sound journalism.

The journalist Thomas Kunkel is sceptical of this so-called incongruity between man and magazine in Genius in Disguise. Without erasing previous portrayals of Ross as an unsophisticated, less-than-literary curmudgeon, he creates an accompanying portrait of him as a journalistic visionary, spirited, curious and bristling with intelligence.

While the famous Ross of The New Yorker requires debate and reinterpretation, it is the young Ross, the child of the American West, who requires examination for the first time. Ross was the son of a miner in Colorado. Many of his childhood and young adult influences and experiences help explain future editorial passions and acumen, and Kunkel strives to make the connections. For instance, behind Ross's hallmark zeal for correct, clear use of the written word was his prairie schoolmarm mother drilling him endlessly in grammar, writing, and reading. Behind the editor who favours character stories (fact and fiction) was the boy who, in his job delivering groceries to brothels, saloons, and jailhouses, observed and listened to employees and patrons alike. Ross was virtually born a journalist. His newspaper career began with an apprenticeship with The Salt Lake City Tribune at age 12; by 14, he had left school to become a tramp newspaperman. He had edited four magazines by the time he conceived The New Yorker in 1924.

With The New Yorker, Ross sought to achieve a new, 20th-century "snob appeal". He knew his audience, and stated it in the prospectus: "The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque I This is not meant in disrespect, but The New Yorker is a magazine avowedly published for a metropolitan audience."

From the outset, Ross insisted that language be grammatically correct and clearly written, that reporting be factually correct, and that all pieces be mortared with humour and a casual tone. Profanity, promiscuity, drunkenness, adultery, reference to bodily functions, and personal politics were forbidden in his magazine; indirection and elision were discouraged, brevity encouraged; irony praised; detachment preferred. The fact-checking department, the first of its kind, investigated all artwork, fact and fiction before they went to print. A result was a pervasive New Yorker "style" or voice evident in all departments, a phenomenon marked by similarities not only in theme but in internal cadence and form. This urbane voice became and remains the magazine's distinguishing characteristic, a reason why it is revered and reproved.

To show the breadth and depth of Ross's editorial skill, Kunkel reproduces numerous examples of memos and query sheets in which the editor's comments prove a remarkable catholicity of knowledge, an alertness to questions of fact, tone, balance, and credibility.

He also had an eye for editorial talent in others. Within the first five years, the editor hired "The Ross Quartet" - Katherine White, E. B. White, James Thurber, and Wolcott Gibbs - to enact and improve upon his ideas. They became the touchstones for New Yorker writing and editing.

Ross had a respect for creative people that bordered on veneration. He pioneered the then-heretical idea of reassigning the rights to a story or artwork to its creator once it had appeared in the magazine, not to mention handling the copyright paperwork and helping contributors find secondary markets for their work. Above all, Ross introduced an unprecedented cleaving of the business and editorial departments, like church and state. And he reigned over both, an omnipresent editor and a bullying gadfly to yeast tycoon Raoul Fleischmann, who owned the magazine. The crucial fact is that Ross was insulated from the financial requirements necessary to achieve his editorial goals. The most intrinsic and celebrated emblem of New Yorker humour is certainly the cartoon. Today, few realise how ground-breaking this type of humour was in 1925. In direct opposition to the bald, two-line, he-she jokes and drawings made popular by Victorian-era family magazines, Ross and artist Rea Irvin virtually invented the single-caption cartoon. Before publishing a cartoon, Ross's query, "Who is speaking and where am I in this?" had to be answered satisfactorily. Kunkel brings this process further to life by including minibiographies of and anecdotes about seminal New Yorker cartoonists such as Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams and William Steig.

Fiction, too, became more serious, but was at a disadvantage from the outset. Ross was heavily partial to factual writing, furthermore he preferred simple, humorous short stories, which is what the magazine printed, almost without exception, for the first ten years.

The conspicuous absence of established writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis in issues between the wars is partially explicable in terms of money; Ross could not compete with Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post. But it was also true that he was unimpressed by names. Somerset Maugham was rejected for years; and Scott Fitzgerald, in his declining years, was denied advances on stories (it was against New Yorker policy). For decades there was no table of contents and names were printed at a story's end to play up the writing and play down the writer. This attitude encouraged the fiction department to discover and develop its own authors. The result was the incubation and nourishment of a generation of American writers such as William Saroyan, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, and Jean Stafford, who began their fiction careers at the magazine. They developed, along with the next generation of the magazine's discoveries (of whom John Updike and Donald Barthelme are exemplary), what is known as "The New Yorker story" - relatively plot-free, mood-intense, and character-driven. With The New Yorker at the forefront, the short story - and fiction - in America began to change permanently.

At a time when magazines are manufactured like costume jewellery or snack food by behemoths such as Conde Nast, it seems hard to fathom that on November 6 1951 The New Yorker office would become paralysed, momentarily, fearing its demise on the death of one man, of heart failure during an operation for lung cancer. Kunkel has convinced us that Ross was, and in some important ways still is, The New Yorker. And a lot more.

Gregory LeStage is researching a DPhil at Oriel College, Oxford.

Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker

Author - Thomas Kunkel
ISBN - 0 679 41837 7
Publisher - Random House
Price - $25.00
Pages - 497

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