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Ask the Librarians archive

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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. I’ve read that the filmmaker Terrence Malick’s first occupation, along with teaching philosophy at M.I.T., was writing for The New Yorker. Did he write under a pseudonym, and what kinds of articles did he write?

Erin writes: Terrence Malick (who directed The New World and Badlands, among others) did indeed write for The New Yorker, but his byline never appeared in the magazine. His only article for us was a “Notes and Comment” piece on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., co-written with Jacob Brackman and published in the April 13, 1968, issue. Neither the Comment nor the Talk of the Town section were signed by the writers in those days, so it is easy to see how this piece might have escaped the notice of Malick fans.

Malick and Brackman’s Comment offers a poignant first-person account of the immediate days after the assassination:
[B]y Sunday—Palm Sunday—things had changed. As marchers gathered,
twenty abreast and eventually seven dense blocks long, at 145th Street and Seventh Avenue, and as they marched…black and white, arms linked, down Seventh Avenue, there was a sense that the non-violent, freed ever so slightly by the President’s speech of last week from the dividing pressure of Vietnam, were returning in force to civil rights…. The march was informal—no marshals and no leaders…. Little boys standing at the entrance to [Central] Park put their feet in the line of march, as though testing the water, and then joined in…. The Mall, by the time the marchers got to it, was filled with a crowd several times the size of the march itself…. We stood on the hill in back of the Mall and watched the two crowds merge. They did so almost silently, and totally, in great waves…and [from the distance] it was hard to tell who was black and who was white.
After his brief stint at The New Yorker, Malick earned his MFA from the AFI Conservatory, and, in 1973, Warner Bros. released Badlands, which was widely admired. The following year, The New Yorker’s movie critic, Pauline Kael, panned the film in the magazine. (“The movie can be summed up: mass-culture banality is killing our souls and making everybody affectless. ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ said the same thing without all this draggy art.”) According to Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), William Shawn was unhappy with Kael’s review, protesting that Malick was “like a son” to him. Her response? “Tough shit, Bill.”

Q. Could you tell me more about illustrator Pierre Le-Tan and the work he has done for The New Yorker?

Jon writes: Pierre Le-Tan was born in Paris in 1950, the son of the Vietnamese artist Le-Pho and a Frenchwoman. He made his debut in The New Yorker at age nineteen, initially contributing spot illustrations. His first cover appeared in 1970—a Valentine’s Day cover depicting a red heart viewed through an open window. Since then, he has contributed eighteen covers (his last was in 1987) and more than fifty illustrations (most recently in 2005).

Le-Tan was one of a number of European artists, including Andre François and Jean-Jacques Sempé, whose work started to appear in the magazine in the late sixties and early seventies. Initially, his covers and spots were predominantly still-lifes and studies of architectural details. In the late eighties, when The New Yorker broadened the scope of the editorial art in its pages, Le-Tan began doing portraits for the magazine. He did drawings of Simone de Beavoir, Nelson Algren, Anthony Hopkins, and Bruno Bettleheim, among others. His most recent work for the magazine was a collaboration with George Saunders in the Sept. 26, 2005, issue that paid tribute to the verse and art of Edward Gorey.

In addition to his magazine work, Le-Tan is much in demand as an illustrator for posters and children’s books. His published books include Remarkable Names (1977), Happy Birthday, Oliver (1978), and Cleo’s Christmas Dreams (1995).

Q. How was the decision made to add television as a Critics category, and how often does it appear?

Erin writes: The column on television has gone through several incarnations at the magazine. It was first introduced by Philip Hamburger in the October 29, 1949, issue under the department heading “Television.” In his book Friends Talking in the Night (1999), Hamburger wrote that it was editor Harold Ross who—“under the impression that television was here to stay”—suggested that he write a column on the medium. Hamburger’s “Television” ran from 1949 to 1955, and it covered such diverse broadcasting topics as Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now programs on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and the emergence of color television. The column lapsed for a few years after Hamburger moved on to write “Notes For a Gazetteer,” but it soon reappeared under the heading “The Air,” by John Lardner.

Lardner wrote “The Air” from 1957 to 1960, and then the column was written by Michael J. Arlen, from 1967 to 1982. Arlen’s reviews covered some of the most important television events in those decades: broadcast news coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate; the 1968 Democratic National Convention; the creation of Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live; the phenomenon of Roots; and so on. According to About Town, Arlen’s early television reviews were fairly conventional, but he “quickly began to see—and write about—television as one grand spectacle, alternately horrifying and absurd, with images of Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic convention, football games, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and Petticoat Junction all running together.” After Arlen’s departure, “The Air” was retitled “On Television” and reintroduced by James Wolcott, who wrote the column from 1992 to 1995. In 1998, Nancy Franklin became the magazine’s television critic, and she continues to write the column—which generally runs about fifteen times a year—today.

Q. Aside from The Reader’s Guide, is there any way to look up old New Yorker articles?

Jon writes: Over the years, there have been several published indexes of material from The New Yorker. In 1946, Thomas S. Shaw, a staff member at the Library of Congress, published an Index to Profile Sketches in the New Yorker Magazine (Boston, F.W. Faxon Co.). Shaw’s index was designed to fill the gap between 1925, when The New Yorker started publishing, and 1940, when The Reader’s Guide began indexing the magazine. In addition to listing the subjects of the magazine’s Profiles and other personality pieces by name and occupation, the book included contact information for libraries with a complete set of The New Yorker in their collections.

A more comprehensive index by Robert Owen Johnson was published in 1971 and contains a full index of The New Yorker from 1925 to 1970. (An Index to Literature in the New Yorker, Metuchen, N.J., The Scarecrow Press). Until recently, it was the only comprehensive index to the magazine available to the public.

More recently, several digital indexes of the magazine have become available. The New Yorker has been distributed to Lexis-Nexis and ProQuest since 2000. While the cost of these subscription databases can be prohibitive to individual users, many library systems, including the New York Public Library, make ProQuest available to their members.

The Complete New Yorker, released in 2005 and updated in 2006, features a searchable index of articles, covers, and cartoons and every printed page of the magazine’s first eighty years and is available on eight DVDs or on a portable hard drive. This is currently the most efficient way to find and read old New Yorker articles. Some libraries, including the Mid-Manhattan branch of the N.Y.P.L., have made The Complete New Yorker available to their users. The Complete New Yorker is available at www.cartoonbank.com.

Q. Who does the little black-and-white drawings (not the Tom Bachtell caricatures) that appear at the start of each Talk of the Town piece?

Erin writes: The small, spare drawings at the beginning of each story in the Talk of the Town section have become a staple of The New Yorker. They are all the work of artist Otto Soglow, who provided more than eight hundred cartoons and tiny uncaptioned illustrations for the magazine before his death in 1975. Soglow began contributing to The New Yorker in November of 1925, and he continued publishing drawings with us for the next forty-nine years. During his time here, he drew illustrations for the Talk section every week; those drawings have been re-used for that section by the editors since his death. In the obituary the magazine ran in the April 28, 1975, issue, William Shawn wrote that Soglow’s work “became purer and purer, until, finally, a Soglow was a drawing without a single detail that could be called extraneous, without any embellishment, without a line that did not seem essential or inevitable.” Several collections of Soglow’s work were published in the early 20th century, including Everything’s Rosy (Farrar & Rinehart, 1932) and The Little King (John Martin’s House, 1945). None of his books are still in print, but a few can be found in used condition on Amazon.

Q. Is it true that at some point in the seventies, Goings On About Town used the listings for The Fantasticks to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses?

Jon writes: Yes. The New Yorker began serializing Ulysses in the November 23, 1968 listing for The Fantasticks, which famously ran for 17,162 performances, or nearly 42 years. That issue quoted the copyright information from the third printing of the novel (London, Egoist Press). The book’s opening words—“Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”—appeared in the Dec. 21, 1968, issue. The serialization lasted almost three years, ending in November of 1971, and encompassed the entirety of the book’s first chapter. By the end, Ulysses had spread to the listings for other long-running musicals such as Hello, Dolly!, and Fiddler on the Roof. For about six months prior to serializing Joyce’s novel, the magazine had filled the Fantasticks listing with geometry (“The sum of the squares of the two other sides”), grammar (” ‘I’ before ‘e,’ but not after ‘c’ “), instructions for doing your taxes (“If payments [line 21] are less than tax [line 16], enter Balance Due”), and other nonsense.

In 1970, New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford explained to Time magazine that he began the serialization of Ulysses because he got bored writing the same straight capsule reviews week after week. Asked about reader response to the serialization, Botsford observed, “Many are delighted they can identify the excerpts, but others think we are trying to communicate with the Russian herring fleet in code.”

Time noted that Botsford might have been inspired by one of The New Yorker’s own writers. Robert Benchley handled theatre listings for the original Life magazine in the twenties, and once wrote of the long-running Abie’s Irish Rose: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”



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.

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Comments

I loved Petticoat Junction.

Thank-you librarians, it is always a tremendous
joy to read your contributions.

Bruce RobinsonJanuary 11, 2007

Ah, Botsford! I often think of his Third Rule of Thumb for Editing: “You can identify a bad writer before you have seen a word of copy if he uses the expression ‘we writers.’”

This is a request, kind archivists. Ten, twenty - maybe more - years ago I read in your magazine a report about a nerd-person at possibly a mid-western university - maybe MSU? - who was at the point of seeing an experiment in computer-speak shut down through lack of funding. The report explained this nerd-person - via inserting a ‘probe’ - could hear computer conversation, perhaps the most significant of which was, “Who made us?” Would this have been factual reportage, fiction or perhaps Shouts & Murmurs. My family and friends would appreciate getting me off their backs about this.
Thanks, Beth

beth saundersJanuary 23, 2007
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