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James Wolcott Reviews the Archive DVDs

Filed under: Looked Into

In The New Criterion. As usual, Wolcott is careful with his subject, with the language, with the fears and rewards of the critical process:

When word arrived last autumn that The New Yorker was releasing a deluxe boxed CD set of every issue of the magazine published since its monocled dandy espied a butterfly on the cover of the February 21, 1925 debut, my first thought was: “Happy-doodle-day!” That may speak to a certain lack of excitement in my life, but for a magazine junkie, this was the mother lode, the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Never again would I haunt the flea markets for back issues from the 1930s and 1940s, hoping to luck into a John O’Hara story I hadn’t read before, or a sporty Peter Arno cover. Professionally, it was also a must-have. For journalists, researchers, historians, educators, and average buffs, the technological breakthrough in the digitalization of magazine archives is a boon to cultural preservation, putting the past—history as it happened—within fingertip reach. Other weeklies, such as The Nation and The New Republic, have digitized their archives, but those virtual libraries are maintained online, requiring subscription fees or single payments to access articles. (I’ve used both services to excavate art and movie reviews by Manny Farber, one of my critical idols, that otherwise would have remained orphaned within bound volumes.) The New Yorker was doing The Nation and The New Republic one better by bypassing the entire online rigamarole and giving readers the complete works in a handsome, handy, illustrated multi-disk set.

After some initial apprehension, he digs in:

After I finally broke down, sliced through the plastic, split open the accursed thing, and inserted the installation disk into the laptop, I found myself lured into a Borgesian labyrinth of interlocking chambers, spiral stairs, and odd detours that unearthed archeological finds wherever the links led. Daylight disappeared as I descended into permanent dusk, the thumbnail covers of The New Yorker instilling a nostalgia for a time I had never known.

I like his allowances for time's various effects on taste, including his own:

The “Staffs of Life” series came to typify and symbolize the monumental tombstone tedium of the New Yorker fact piece at its most didactic-pedantic, and even now, decades later, I still hear the occasional chortle, “Remember when The New Yorkerran 50,000 words on grain?” I inserted disk two into the laptop to see if Kahn’s articles were as boring as I remembered, and, as I began to read, I realized that I never had read them, only given them a skim when they were originally published, having taken everybody’s word for how boring they were. I can’t say I was riveted, but the pieces were, I have to confess—interesting. Reams of research braided into elegant histories, and nothing to belittle.

I was sorry to see such a tinny dismissal of the cover artist Gretchen Dow Simpson (and the seeming suggestion that it was fiction's, ahem, "maidens of sorrow" who were primarily responsible for "low-cal" minimalism). At least one of Wolcott's closing questions will get people arguing: "Why does The New Yorker’s current slate of female byliners (Susan Orlean, Joan Acocella, Nancy Franklin, Caitlan Flanagan, et al.) seem so much girlier than its former greats (Flanner, Kael, Lois Long, Andy Logan, Maeve Brennan, Emily Hahn)?" You think Nancy Franklin is girly, really? Rebecca Mead? Arlene Croce? Larissa MacFarquhar? Cynthia Zarin? Katha Pollitt? I can't agree. (Incidentally, Dennis Johnson at Moby Lives tallied up the women writers in the magazine throughout 2002, and found a dearth. I'd be interested in another survey for '05; I think the statistics would be sunnier—more Flanagan, more Zarin, more Mead—but I can't be sure.)

Anyway, the reason I bow, deeply if not especially girlishly, to Wolcott is for sentences like this: "A product of the George Jean Nathan-H. L. Mencken 1920s with a dash of Punch, Harold Ross’s New Yorker flashed its grin like a marquee, its jibes and quips syncopated to the staccato rhythms of newsrooms typewriters and the tap-happy Broadway stage." Or this description of E.B. White: "A prodigious miniaturist who composed hundreds of cartoon captions, newsbreaks, short stories, essays, and Talk of the Town notes and comments (scroll through his credits on the archive search and it’s like watching an endless armada enter the harbor), White taxed his feathery touch of concentration to the breaking point." Or this summary of the magazine's new stance after World War II: " It was the genius of The New Yorker that it recognized this evolutionary shift and, instead of making incremental adjustments at a stately pace, launched a preemptive strike on its readers’ expectations." The subject (and the reader) enjoy the same level of respect and genuine institutional knowledge that's here in The New Criterion as they do in Wolcott's Vanity Fair pieces and on his blog. Say what you will about the wacky standards of new media—Wolcott makes the high-wire somersaults look (that's look) easy.

Wolcott's piece cont'd. Thanks to T.P. for the tip.

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