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Ask the Librarians

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Ask the Librarians (VII)

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This will be the final column in a series we have been enchanted by since Jon Michaud and Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s head librarians, agreed to answer readers’ questions about the magazine’s past and present. Their daily investigations into the magazine’s mysteries, and their preservation of its treasures, take all their time; that they so generously gave more of it to us, and that our association developed into a friendship over time, has been one of the most rewarding results of the Emdashes experiment.

Like parents at a graduation, we’re a bit choked up and very proud to announce that Ask the Librarians will soon move to The New Yorker’s own Back Issues blog. As its debut post explains, “Look out for new features that will offer additional paths into The New Yorker’s archives—all without paper cuts or dust-induced sneezes.” Gesundheit, godspeed, and we gaily say goodbye. We look forward to the next installment at its new (and wonderfully traditional) home! There’s a new e-mail address for submitting burning research questions, as you’d expect, and it’s tny.archive at gmail dot com. The Ask the Librarians illustration is by Lara Tomlin, whom we also thank for her warm and graceful contribution.

Q. Who have The New Yorker’s chief fiction editors been, and what were their years of tenure?

Jon writes: For much of its history, The New Yorker frowned on the use of formal titles among its staff. As a result, there have been long periods of time when there was no designated chief fiction editor. Perhaps the best way to answer this question is simply to identify the staff members who have played a significant role in selecting and editing the fiction published by the magazine.

In this sense, The New Yorker’s first fiction editor was Harold Ross. Ross’s founding concept of the magazine as a “comic paper” included short, often satirical pieces of fiction by the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Frank Sullivan. (For many decades thereafter, the fiction department handled the magazine’s humor writers, including James Thurber, E. B. White, Woody Allen, George W. S. Trow, and Garrison Keillor.)

In the late twenties, The New Yorker also began to cultivate and publish more serious literary fiction. A great deal of the credit for this goes to Katharine S. White, who, with Ross’s blessing, solicited work from Kay Boyle, Sally Benson, and others. Later, she would oversee the publication of stories by John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, and many other writers now associated with The New Yorker. White had come to the magazine in August of 1925 as a part-time manuscript reader (she was Katharine Sergeant Angell then), but was rapidly given greater responsibilities, and arguably did more than anyone but Ross to shape The New Yorker’s editorial identity. During the thirties, Wolcott Gibbs and, later, William Maxwell, worked with Mrs. White in the fiction department.

In 1938, Katharine and E. B. White moved to Maine, reducing their contributions to the magazine. A year later, Gibbs became the magazine’s theatre critic. Gustave (Gus) Lobrano, who had been at Town & Country, was hired to fill the vacancy and stayed at the magazine until his death, in 1956. Maxwell left The New Yorker for a time to focus on his writing. When the Whites moved back to New York in 1943, Mrs. White returned to full-time editorial work and continued to exert an enormous influence on the magazine until her retirement in 1957.

William Shawn did not name a new chief fiction editor upon White’s retirement, though Maxwell, who had resumed full-time editing duties in the fifties, was seen as the department’s leading member. Katharine White’s son, Roger Angell, who had been contributing pieces to The New Yorker since the forties, was hired as a fiction editor. Other editors who were prominent during this period were Robert Henderson and Rachel MacKenzie. Writers published in this era included John O’Hara, John Updike, Frank O’Connor, J. D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey, and Mavis Gallant.

Maxwell retired in 1975, by which time he had helped to hire Charles McGrath and Daniel Menaker. Through the late seventies and early eighties, Roger Angell managed the department, which also included Frances Kiernan and Veronica Geng among its editors. McGrath was promoted to co-managing editor for fiction and then to deputy editor before leaving, in 1995, to become editor of The New York Times Book Review. Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, V. S. Pritchett, Jamaica Kincaid, and Bobbie Ann Mason were regularly published during this period.

In 1995, Tina Brown hired Bill Buford to be fiction and literary editor. Buford had edited the English literary magazine Granta since 1978, transforming it from a mimeographed and stapled college journal into an important literary periodical. Menaker went on to become editor of Random House books and continued to contribute pieces to the magazine; Angell stayed at the magazine and, in time, reduced his editing responsibilities in order to do more writing. Fiction writers who made their New Yorker débuts during Buford’s watch include Donald Antrim, A. M. Homes, Martin Amis, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz.

The magazine’s current fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, succeeded Buford in 2002. Treisman first came to The New Yorker from Grand Street in 1997, where she had been managing editor. She was Buford’s deputy for five years before becoming fiction editor. Cressida Leyshon is the current deputy fiction editor. Aleksandar Hemon, Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, George Saunders, Annie Proulx, and Edwidge Danticat have all been regular contributors of fiction to the magazine during Treisman’s tenure.

Q. What’s the history of Shouts & Murmurs? Has it always been written by a different person every week?

Erin writes: Shouts & Murmurs was originated by Alexander Woollcott, in 1929, as an essay column, filled with his musings on literary and theatrical happenings, as well as on the humorous miscellany and scandals of the day. Woollcott was a New York Times drama critic and Stars and Stripes colleague of Harold Ross’s before he joined The New Yorker in 1925. From 1925 to 1939, he also wrote a series of profiles on cultural celebrities, including Harpo Marx, Noel Coward, George S. Kaufman, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Woolcott’s writing is notable for its ornate style, which was typically at odds with that of his contemporaries at the magazine. Brendan Gill, in his 1975 memoir Here at The New Yorker, said of Woollcott that he “combined a foul mouth with a sentimentality so extreme that he was sometimes referred to even by friends as ‘Louisa May Woollcott.’ ” Here is an excerpt from a Shouts & Murmurs published on August 5, 1933:
I must now break down and admit that, despite all my labors in this vineyard, the Wee Wee Cleaners & Dryers are doing business in Woodside, Long Island; that a drugstore sign in Watertown, Conn., advertises “Little Bibs for Little Spinach Spillers”; and that cards from the Westmoreland Club in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., announce “Club Night and Beer ‘Ception for New Members.” It is now my private ambition to attend a ‘ception at the ‘Quaintance Club out in Forest Hills. It will make me feel socially ‘portant. At such evidence that the Helpy-Selfy-Bekus-Puddy tide rolls on despite all the earnest jeers from this department, you might expect your correspondent, in his discouragement, to throw up his hands as well as his breakfast. But something has just happened to renew this fainting spirit, to revive this drooping head. Incorrigible readers of this page may recall that this campaign was originally inspired by the sight of a roadside eating place north of Pittsfield, in Massachusetts, which, as I noted with a cry nicely blended of incredulity and pain, was called the No Namie. Well, friends, no one can say now that this department his lived in vain. For the sign has come down at last and this summer the No Namie is called The Spot.
Shouts & Murmurs was written solely by Woollcott, and it ran from February 16, 1929 to December 29, 1934. He borrowed the title of the column from his 1922 book of theatre reviews. Woollcott suffered a heart attack during an appearance on the CBS radio show The People’s Platform on January 23, 1943, and he died later that day. He was fifty-six.

Shouts & Murmurs was reborn, as a humor column, in editor Tina Brown’s first issue, October 5, 1992. It replaced the longstanding humor “casuals,” which ran in the magazine for more than sixty years. This time, the Shouts column relied on a variety of contributors, including some of the leading writers and humorists of the last few decades. Those who wrote for Shouts in the nineties and early 2000s include Jay McInerney, John Guare, Martin Amis, Garry Trudeau, Wendy Wasserstein, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Martin, Nick Hornby, Salman Rushdie, Elaine May, Jon Stewart, Rick Moody, Noah Baumbach, Paul Rudnick, George Saunders, Woody Allen, and Nora Ephron.

Shouts moved from the back page to the front of the book in 1998. A number of Shouts pieces were collected in Fierce Pajamas, a New Yorker humor anthology co-edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder and published by Random House in 2002. A second New Yorker humor anthology, Disquiet, Please (also co-edited by Remnick and Finder), was released last year.

Q. I have been reading Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. I understand that Wilson published some stories in The New Yorker. Can you tell me more about his contributions to the magazine?

Jon writes: Sloan Wilson (1920–2003) published twenty-four stories and two poems in The New Yorker between January, 1945, and October, 1953. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which appeared two years after his last publication in the magazine, was a best-seller and was adapted into a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1956. The novel, which chronicled the domestic and working life of Tom Rath, a Second World War veteran living in suburban Connecticut with his wife in three children, was favorably reviewed in the “Briefly Noted” section of The New Yorker: “Mr. Wilson creates a realistic, perceptive picture of a tiny, frightened life being lived as largely as possible.”

Wilson’s first piece for The New Yorker was a poem, “The Soldiers Who Sit.” Its opening line articulates the goal of many of Wilson’s later stories and novels: “I would like to write a poem about the soldiers in this war.” Wilson served in the Coast Guard and aboard military transport ships in the Pacific. Like “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” Wilson’s stories often deal with the difficulties faced by veterans returning to civilian life.

In fact, it is possible to read a many of his stories as warm-ups for the novel. The characters and the themes are already in place, and he merely needed a larger canvas. In “The Reunion,” an assistant sales manager helps a former shipmate get a better job in part so that he will not have to see him and be reminded of the war. In “Bygones,” a married veteran gets a letter from a woman in Germany with whom he had an affair. In “The Regatta,” a man traveling to the Harvard-Yale regatta aboard a sailboat sees a periscope and is reminded of his service on a submarine during the war.

Malcolm Gladwell used The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to discuss changing ideas about the way people cope with trauma in the November 8, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. Gladwell contrasted Tom Rath, the protagonist of Wilson’s novel, with John Wade, the Vietnam veteran in Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. Gladwell writes that Tom Rath comes out of Wilson’s novel “stronger, his marriage renewed,” while Wade falls apart and is destroyed by his past.

Reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit I found myself thinking of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a more ferocious novel with a nearly identical subject and setting, published in 1961. (It was also the March selection of The New Yorker’s online book club). Yates, who was born in 1926, served in Europe immediately after the war. The similarities between Yates and Wilson don’t end there. Yates’s only publication in The New Yorker, “The Canal,” was about two veterans discussing a Second World War battle during a cocktail party. Wilson’s “The Housewarming” tells the story of three men at a party discussing the war and the likelihood of another. In both stories’ closing scenes, a veteran is alone with his wife after the party where they have just been talking about the war. In Wilson’s story, the husband is unable to console his weeping wife: “he couldn’t think of anything at all to say to comfort her.” In “The Canal,” meanwhile, the more vitriolic Yates has his protagonists say to his spouse, “Will you please for God’s sake shut up?”

Q. Janet Flanner and A. J. Liebling famously covered France for The New Yorker. Have there been any other significant international beats, and who covered them?

Erin writes: The magazine has published thousands of foreign letters, from nearly a hundred countries, in its eighty-four-year history. The most famous, of course, is Janet Flanner’s Letter from Paris column, which she wrote under the pen name Genêt. Her Letter from Paris ran from October 10, 1925 (originally as Paris Letter) through September 23, 1939, right at the beginning of the Second World War. Flanner’s column started up again on December 23, 1944, and ran until September 29, 1975. (A. J. Liebling wrote the Letter from Paris column during the Second World War, from October 28, 1939, through November 4, 1944.)

There are other significant foreign letters columns published by the magazine that are less well-known. Mollie Panter-Downes’s Letter from London ran from September 9, 1939, until March 26, 1984. Panter-Downes was an English novelist who published her first novel, The Shoreless Sea, at the age of sixteen. In 1939, St. Clair McKelway sent a telegram to Panter-Downes, asking her to write a column for the magazine about “human rather than political events” in London.

She went on to document both in her column, covering the cultural, domestic, and political scene in London from the Second World War through the nineteen-eighties. In all, she published more than four hundred and seventy Letters from London. The following is an excerpt from a Letter published September 21, 1940, during the London bombings:
For Londoners, there are no longer such things as good nights; there are only bad nights, worse nights, and better nights. Hardly anyone has slept at all in the past week. The sirens go off at approximately the same time every evening, and in the poorer districts, queues of people carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and babies begin to form quite early outside the air-raid shelters. The Blitzkrieg continues to be directed against such military objectives as the tired shopgirl, the red-eyed clerk, and the thousands of dazed and weary families patiently trundling their few belongings in perambulators away from the wreckage of their homes…. The Nazi attack bore down heaviest on the badly nourished, poorly clothed people—the worst equipped of any to stand the appalling physical strain, if it were not for the stoutness of their cockney hearts. Relief workers sorted them out in schools and other centres to be fed, rested, and provided with billets. Subsequent raids killed many of the homeless as they waited. The bombers, however, made no distinction between the lowest and the highest homes in the city. The Queen was photographed against much the same sort of tangle of splintered wreckage that faced hundreds of humbler, anonymous housewives in this week’s bitter dawns…. The “diversion” in Regent Street, where a bomb fell just outside the Café Royal and did not explode for hours, cut off the surrounding streets and made the neighborhood as quiet as a hamlet…. The scene next morning was quite extraordinarily eerie. The great sweep of Regent Street, deserted by everyone except police and salvage workers, stared gauntly like a thoroughfare in a dead city. It would have been no surprise to see grass growing up out of the pavements, which were covered instead with a fine, frosty glitter of powdered glass…. Scenes like this are new enough to seem both shocking and unreal; to come across a wrecked filling station with a couple of riddled cars standing dejectedly by its smashed pumps makes one feel that one must have strayed onto a Hollywood set, and it’s good to get back to normality among the still snug houses in the next street.
Panter-Downes’s first year of London letters was published in 1940 by the Atlantic Monthly Press as the collection Letter from England. She died on January 22, 1997, at the age of ninety. Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, a collection of twenty-one of her short stories for The New Yorker, was reprinted by Persephone Books in 2008.

The magazine also ran a series of in-depth foreign letters during the Vietnam War by Robert Shaplen: Letter from Saigon (December 14, 1963–October 6, 1975), Letter from South Vietnam (April 24, 1965–November 13, 1978), and Letter from Vietnam (November 13, 1971–February 24, 1973). Shaplen wrote for Newsweek, Fortune, and Collier’s before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1952. His pieces during and after the Vietnam War were less reflective of a particular ideological stance than of a persistent and abiding interest in the region and its people. He wrote comprehensively on the political and military strategies of both sides during the war, but always with an eye on the cultural landscape in which they were playing out.

Eventually, he became a harsh critic of America’s participation in the war. Here is an excerpt from a Letter from Saigon, which ran April 21, 1975:
This capital of a lost cause, fatalistically awaiting the climactic hour of the thirty-year Indo-China war, can, at best, become a hostage for peace on predominantly Communist terms if the inept and unpopular Thieu regime is replaced by one that is prepared to negotiate and avoid further carnage. It is generally agreed here that the sooner this happens the better. The mood of the besieged city, now one of benumbed resignation, could easily give way to the panic and hysteria that marked the collapse of Danang and other cities in the past month if the Communists choose the option of outright capture—or simply if, as seems even more likely here than it ever did elsewhere, angry and despairing soldiers and citizens, with nowhere to flee, turn into rioting mobs and vent their spleen on each other and on the six thousand Americans nervously anticipating evacuation…. Politically, American policy here is bankrupt. Too late—far too late—the more realistic American officials have come to admit that Thieu must go…. Whatever merit there is in [Thieu’s] case against the Americans, he seems determined to hang on as long as he can… The net effect of this, in both the Embassy and the Presidential palace, is catatonic. But in recent years, and especially the past year or two, I have increasingly come to feel that everything that happens in Vietnam is phantasmagoric, and that it has all happened before—all, that is, except the vast human tragedy now unfolding. And even this, of course, has been going on for a long time, at a different tempo, but now, at the moment of abject defeat, the futility of everything that has taken place here is being driven home more sharply by the frantic flights for survival, the pell-mell surges of huge numbers of refugees in every direction, the hasty dispatch of orphans abroad—climaxed by the awful air crash outside the Saigon airport—and, in general, the separation and destruction of whole families of innocent city folk and country folk as anger and bitterness have suddenly boiled over…. Perhaps the strangest thing is that, until one really looks beneath the surface, daily life in Saigon continues much as before…. The restaurants are fuller than they have been for several years, because of the influx of foreign correspondents. The flower stalls are still open, though the flowers are less plentiful and seem to fade more quickly. The city responds to a crisis—as it always has—with hidden reflexes, and then lapses back into its ordinary pace.
Shaplen was the author of more than ten books and nearly one hundred and sixty articles for the magazine before his death in 1988. He was among the many who fled Saigon by helicopter on April 29, 1979, as North Vietnamese troops were about to seize the city. In the introduction to his 1986 book, Bitter Victory, he wrote of the war that America “had never properly defined our original commitment, had become overinvolved militarily, had misconstrued our political aims, and then had angrily fought a bootless and cruel war ineffectually.”

One of the longer-running current foreign letters has been Jane Kramer’s Letter from Europe, which began in 1981. Kramer wrote for The Village Voice before joining the staff of The New Yorker, in 1964, and she has written more than one hundred and seventy pieces for the magazine. Her Letter from Europe has covered such varied topics as the election of Francois Mitterand, the Klaus Barbie trial, the coal miners’ strike in Britain, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the rise of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and Pope Benedict XVI’s view on Islam. She is also the author of nine books and the first woman to win the Prix Européen de l’Essai “Charles Veillon,” Europe’s most prestigious award for nonfiction.

More recently, writers Adam Gopnik and Julian Barnes have covered the Paris and London beats for the magazine. Gopnik wrote a Paris Journal column from 1995 to 2005, and Barnes wrote a Letter from London from 1990 to 1994. Gopnik’s column was the seed for his best-selling book, Paris to the Moon (Random House, 2000), and in 1995, Vintage compiled and published Barnes’s London columns as Letters from London.

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.


Amazingly thorough and informative, as always. I’m sorry this’ll be the last one in this venue.

And though I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s asked about who the TNY’s chief fiction editors have been over the years, thanks very much for answering it.

Best of luck in your new space.

New Back Issues feature “The Candy Bowl” has already been abandoned? The first post indicated an issue from the archive would be unlocked each week; there hasn’t been one unlocked since, and the next two posts were to articles that were behind the pay wall. I’m a subscriber and can read whatever I want from the archive, but it seems like a cruel thing to promise and then not follow through on. Or perhaps there were few takers?

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