A column in which Jon Michaud and Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s head librarians, answer your questions about the magazine’s past and present. E-mail your own questions for Jon and Erin; the column has now moved to The New Yorker’s Back Issues blog. Illustration for Emdashes by Lara Tomlin.
Q. For the very first years of the magazine, how did the editors solicit pieces? Did they advertise anywhere?
Ben Yagoda notes in his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made
that no fewer than 282 writers contributed at least one piece to The New Yorker
in 1925, its first year of publication. This number illustrates how unsettled the magazine’s editorial staff was in its early life, but it may also be a little misleading. Many of those “pieces” were short Talk of the Town stories often no longer than a paragraph, sometimes written by relatives and friends of the magazine’s staff. The most significant group of early contributors to The New Yorker
came from a circle of writers and artists who had known the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, from his years at other magazines, including The Stars and Stripes
, The Home Sector
, and Judge
. Many were also members of the Algonquin Round Table, as were Ross and his wife, Jane Grant. The list of contributors includes writers Alexander Woolcott, Ring Lardner, Corey Ford, Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Margaret Case Harriman, and artists John Held, Jr., and Gardner Rea.
There are two instances in which the magazine, in its early years, formally solicited work from a group of writers. In 1928, seeking to change the public perception of The New Yorker
as solely a humor magazine, its literary editor, Katharine Angell, wrote letters to a number of fiction writers asking for “serious” short stories. Many of them, including Kay Boyle, Sally Benson, and Louise Bogan, submitted work that was later published. The next year, Angell wrote a similar letter soliciting work from poets.
From the beginning, editors at The New Yorker
also made a habit of spotting talented young newspaper journalists and bringing them on board, first as freelancers and then as staff writers. A.J.
Liebling and Joseph Mitchell are two notable early examples of this practice, which continues with writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Specter.
In 1923, when Ross first hatched the idea of a weekly humorous magazine with a focus on New York, he created a mock edition that he showed prospective contributors and backers. According to Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker
, he carried the dummy around for two years, boring his friends with it. Kunkel notes that “even Woollcott…who could be counted on to vouch for Ross’s editorial acumen, was skeptical. He refused to introduce Ross to the influential publisher Condé Nast.” That union would take another sixty years.
Q. Which writer holds the record for the most short stories published in one year?
In earlier years, The New Yorker
ran several fiction pieces in each issue; today, it usually runs one short story and one casual (now known as Shouts and Murmurs) per issue, excepting the two annual fiction issues, which often contain four or five fiction pieces. The writer with the record for the most short stories published in one year happens to be E. B. White, with an astounding twenty-eight stories published in 1927. James Thurber and the novelist John O’H
ara follow closely behind White, both with twenty-three stories published in 1932 and 1929, respectively. Frank Sullivan, one of the magazine’s early humor writers, contributed twenty-two short stories in 1931, while noted fiction writer S. J. Perelman contributed fifteen in 1953.
The writer who has published the most short stories in the magazine overall is Thurber, who contributed two hundred and seventy-three fiction pieces from 1927 to 1961. Perelman is a close runner-up, with two hundred and seventy-two short stories published between 1930 and 1979. Other prolific New Yorker
fiction writers include O’H
ara (two hundred and twenty-seven in all), Sullivan (one hundred and ninety-two), White (one hundred and eighty-three), and John Updike (one hundred and sixty-eight).
Q. The New Yorker used to have a horse-racing column. Who wrote it? Were these racing columns ever collected in a book?
Jon writes: The New Yorker
’s horse-racing column, The Race Track, was written by George F. T. (George Francis Trafford) Ryall under the pen name Audax Minor. His first column for the magazine appeared in the July 10, 1926, issue, under the department heading The Ponies. After a few months it was renamed Paddock and Post before finally becoming The Race Track in May of 1927. The column ran regularly until December 18, 1978.
Ryall was born in Toronto and educated in England, and his family owned a string of racehorses. His first job was covering sports for the Exchange-Telegraph agency of London; he then wrote about horse racing for the New York World
. While still at the World
, Ryall started contributing to The New Yorker
, using the pseudonym Audax Minor. (The nom de plume was a tribute to the British racing writer Arthur Fitzhardinge Berkeley Portman, who wrote under the name Audax Major.) Ryall contributed several Profiles to the magazine and also wrote about men’s fashion, automobiles, and polo, but he is most remembered for The Race Track. The columns were usually short (two pages at most) and crammed with information about horses, horse trainers, jockeys, stables, owners, tracks, touts, and every other facet of racing in the United States and Europe. Here is an example, from a 1977 column:
American-bred Alleged—he’s by Hoist the Flag out of Princess Pout—won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris the other Sunday. He took it by a length and a half from Balmerino, the top horse in New Zealand and Australia. Crystal Palace, winner of the French Derby, was third, a head in front of Queen Elizabeth of England’s Dunfermline.
Accounts of races were interspersed with Ryall’s dry observations and efficient character sketches, such as this passage from a 1938 column about the trainer James Fitzsimmons:
He still suffers from the effects of an experiment he made years ago when, as a jockey, he wanted to reduce [his weight]. Someone told him that surplus weight could be baked off and, being a literal-minded man, Fitzsimmons found a brick kiln which was cooling out, crawled in, and lay for some hours on the floor. It was the end of him as a rider; the muscles of his shoulders, back, and neck have never recovered.
At the time of his death in 1979, Ryall was the writer of longest record at The New Yorker
and, at 91, the oldest writer on staff. In his unsigned obituary in the magazine (October 22, 1979), Robert MacMillan noted the following: “Once in a while, our Checking Department, trying to verify some remote detail he had mentioned, would be told by outside sources that the only man alive who could answer that question was George Ryall of The New Yorker
Ryall’s work has never been collected in book form by a commercial publisher. Some of his pieces have appeared in anthologies of sports writing, but the best way to read his columns (there are more than a thousand of them) is via The Complete New Yorker.
Q. The magazine’s editorial positions have become visibly political in recent years; in fact, the first Talk of the Town piece (Comment) is usually political commentary. When did this start? Did the magazine, for example, take a collective position on the Vietnam War, as it has on Iraq?
The Comment page (or Notes and Comment, as it was originally known) has long been a place for the magazine to express an editorial viewpoint, political or otherwise. According to E. B. White
, Scott Elledge’s 1984 biography of the writer credited with originating the Comment editorial, Harold Ross believed that the Comment “set the keynote for the magazine.” The earliest comments were a series of short opinion essays about newsworthy people and events in the city and around the country. Typically, they displayed a light, humorous touch, and many were not political at all.
Characteristic of these are a 1933 Comment by White on the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford divorce (“We call on Miss Pickford’s lawyer to amend his extremely prejudicial complaint by stating that Mr. Fairbanks’ penchant for travel merely destroyed the legitimate ends of matrimony for Miss Pickford”) and a 1940 Comment by Wolcott Gibbs about the disappearance of “Café Society.” (“Its members are anachronisms and they eat too much, but we shall miss them.”)
The early Comment writers (among them White, Gibbs, and Geoffrey T. Hellman) sometimes used the space to editorialize about—and poke fun at—not only America’s enemies, like Hitler and Mussolini, but also America’s leaders, including presidents and other politicians, business leaders, and the wealthy society elite. A 1937 Comment by White derided Franklin D. Roosevelt as an “Eagle Scout” who’d gotten out of hand, while a 1954 Comment (also by White) categorically dismissed Senator Joseph McCarthy as “the No. 1 waster of the nation’s time.” Early World War II editorial pieces began to take a slightly more serious tone, with prescient warnings against Nazism and Hitler.
It was in the sixties and seventies that the magazine became more overtly political in its editorials. Many Comments expressed disillusionment with both the Vietnam War and the political leadership in Washington. As early as 1965, a Comment by John Updike referred to the conflict in Vietnam as an “unfathomable impasto of blood and money and good intentions and jungle rot.” In 1969, William Shawn took the unusual step of running a long Comment consisting wholly of an anti-war speech by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist George Wald. “We are bombing them in Hanoi [our government tells us] so that we won’t have to fight them in the streets of San Francisco,” Shawn wrote in a 1972 Comment. “And in the course of…all this bombing, our souls have withered.”
Comment writers Jonathan Schell, Richard Goodwin, and Richard Harris wrote impassioned editorials on the growing chaos in Vietnam and the seeming inability of America’s leaders to resolve the conflict. “Somehow, the country has been more battered by this war than by any other war in the century,” Schell wrote in 1972. “It has devoured a generation of our young people, killing some and embittering others…. For ten years, death has had us in its grip, and now it is we…who are beginning to die.”
From the nineties to the present, senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg has succeeded White and Schell as the chief writer of the page, contributing between two and three Comments a month. His Comments on the Afghanistan War, in late 2001, were primarily positive, albeit with a prophetic warning, in December of that year, that “the struggle has begun well, but it has only begun.” With his Comments on the Iraq War—thirteen in all—Hertzberg has taken a more skeptical tone. As early as August of 2002, he wrote that the Bush Administration has “produced plenty of plans for war in Iraq…but it has not yet produced a rationale.” In the summer of 2003, after the war had officially ended, he stated that conditions in Iraq “are disastrous by the looser standards of places like Beirut, Bogota, and Bombay.” And in August 2006—a full four years after his first Comment on the war—he lambasted the failure of President Bush’s “gamble” in Iraq.
For more than 80 years, the magazine has continued to offer an editorial viewpoint during times of peace and war. In 1945, E. B. White remarked on the delicate role of writers and the free press during wartime: “We have been in a good position to observe the effect on writers and artists of war and trouble…. It is hard to remain seated on the low hammocks of satire and humor in the midst of grim events.”
Addressed elsewhere in Ask the Librarians: VII: Who were the fiction editors?, Shouts & Murmurs history, Sloan Wilson, international beats; VI: Letters to the editor, On and Off the Avenue, is the cartoon editor the same as the cover editor and the art editor?, audio versions of the magazine, Lois Long and Tables for Two, the cover strap; V: E. B. White’s newsbreaks, Garrison Keillor and the Grand Ole Opry, Harold Ross remembrances, whimsical pseudonyms, the classic boardroom cartoon; IV: Terrence Malick, Pierre Le-Tan, TV criticism, the magazine’s indexes, tiny drawings, Fantasticks follies; III: Early editors, short-story rankings, Audax Minor, Talk’s political stance; II: Robert Day cartoons, where New Yorker readers are, obscure departments, The Complete New Yorker, the birth of the TOC, the Second World War “pony edition”; I: A. J. Liebling, Spots, office typewriters, Trillin on food, the magazine’s first movie review, cartoon fact checking.