Sunday, September 25, 2005

Yes, The New Yorker

It arrived a couple of days ago in an Amazon box no thicker than the one used to send Shalimar the Clown and no heavier than a pound of Georgia peaches: The complete New Yorker, on eight CD’s. All of it. All four thousand-odd issues going back to the first one on February 21, 1925, with Mr. Lilly (drawn by Rea Irvin, the magazine’s first art editor), on the cover, a Parfums Caron (10 rue de la paix, Paris) ad on the inside cover, and “Of All Things,” a forgotten feature that preceded the unforgettable “Talk of the Town,” starting things off with this paragraph: “Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection. Well, competition is the life of the party, as Mr. LaFollette might have it.” In his introduction to the CD set David Remnick, only the magazine’s fifth editor after Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, describes the substance of the magazine’s beginning as “all meringue,”  its pages flowing with their “over-all mood of gaiety, even if that gaiety seems a bit forced and, now, antique.” Sure enough, but even that first paragraph is like a strand of DNA right out of cultural and political history. Follow the code through the magazine’s very pages and it’s as if you’re flipping through the 20th century all over again. Who remembers Robert LaFollette, whom Wisconsin had just been elected to the Senate to fill his dead father’s seat and who made Republicans turn green? Speaking of whom: where’s today’s LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee? The New Yorker didn’t have anything to say the week LaFollette blew his brains out, in 1953, 28 years virtually to the day of serving as the magazine’s first punch-line. E.B. White—of Strunk & White, to all of you victims of that tyrannical little white book—opened that week’s “Comment” section with a characteristically anal plaint about word usage: “We’ve noticed that in his speeches Secretary Dulles uses the word ‘Democrat’ instead of ‘Democratic’ in such phrases as ‘the Democrat administration’ and ‘the Democrat Party.’ We haven’t discovered whether Mr. Dulles worked out this usage on his own, as his personal rhetorical device, or whether it is to be standard usage in all departments of the new regime.” White also mused about a United States Customs Court Judge inventing the word “caprew,” “constructed out of letters taken from ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant’ and ‘Jew,’ and it means ‘an American.’” This isn’t to deny the issue’s happy devotion to the noble and the serious that week, with a Brendan Gill review of Simone deBeauvoir’s The Seconde Sex, a typically bare-knuckled piece by A.J. Liebling, the last of a three-part piece by Rebecca West that became, eleven years later, The New Meaning of Treason, a book that, judging from Sidney Hook’s review in the New York Times eight days after I was born, could have been written yesterday: “With rare courage and independence of judgment, Miss West gives us a complex, nuanced and highly knowledgeable account of a dreadful phenomenon that inspire, in many minds, an aversion so deep as to prevent understanding. She believes that the new forms of treason in a thermonuclear age constitute a vastly greater danger to the peace and survival of the open society than previous varieties. This is not only because of their grave menace to security at a time when the sudden death of cultures is possible. To some degree, danger also lurks in the measures a free society may be goaded into accepting when, in frenzied reaction to laxness in its security season, it hunts for scapegoats and paralyzes its own defense of an impossible quest for total security.”

One paragraph, and I’m already lost in the thick of the century’s hearts of darkness. But it’s all here. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (“There was onmce a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings…”) Hanna Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth” and its opening paragraph packing twenty billion tons of TNT, which I remember as much for its hair-raising feel as for the time and place when I read it, sitting in an uncomfortable recliner-type chair in Gabriel or Robert’s Columbia University apartment, the view of a Manhattan being obliterated in front of me; Janet Flanner’s 1936 profile of Hitler (this one is among the many pieces excerpted in the preview pages of the boxed set, itself worth the money: “Dictator of a nation devoted to splendid sausages, cigars, beer, and babies, Adolf Hitler is a vegetarian, teetotaler, nonsmoker, and celibate. He was a small-boned baby and was tubercular in his teens. He says that as a youth he was always considered an eccentric.”  Would anyone have dared write even so vaguely personable an opening to anything führeroidal two, three years later?); the original version of John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” (where for some reason he has Jim and Irene Westcott living “in the East Seventies between Fifth and Madison Avenues,” before moving them, for the hardback edition, to “an apartment house near Sutton Place”); Lewis Mumford’s three-part piece on “The Roaring Traffic’s Boom” in 1950. Those cartoons (from 1947: An Arab has just been shown to his hotel room. He looks at the bellhop and says: “One last thing. Which way is east?”). Those covers, which I’ve been saving since the late 1980s. All those pieces I’ve been clipping since the mid-1980s. (My first one is a Letter from Jerusalem by Amos Elon, from 1985, with this bit that could also have been written yesterday: “If Peres has recently been speaking of a new era in Israeli politics, many still live in the old one. A lot of people here—perhaps excluding the zealots of the far right—seem to be tired. The tiredness may be the result of their having lived for so long—for some, an entire lifetime—in what seems an interminable emergency. Or it may be a result of this country’s being so overextended, both emotionally and physically. There was a time when it was said that Israel had too much history and too little territory. Since 1967, the opposite has been true. The strains are showing.”) Finally, even that famous three-part piece on corn that took too much New Yorker-bashing over the years, and which I remember, if not reading, then at least relishing, for its mere existence (and which I will now gladly read and relish for what I assume is its deserved permanence). Whose work was it, E.J. Kahn? Sure enough. June 18, 1984: “The Staffs of Life,” the first in a series that saw Kahn write a profile of the potato later that year, then one of rice and one of soybeans in 1985, before he settled down to the less esoteric topicality of the world’s fair in Japan and something about Mali later in the year. What unfair bitching he reaped for so much harvesting on our behalf.

The issue that saw the inaugural piece in the staples quartet also had a curious, and now timely, Comment piece by—who else—Jonathan Schell, about the “striking—and, to some, infuriating—disparity between the reaction of public opinion to the United States’ intervention in Central America and the reaction to the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan.” The United States sends a few military advisors and a few million dollars to the Contras, and all hell breaks loose in Congress, in protests wherever Ronald Reagan appears, at the United Nations. The Soviet Union invades and ravages Afghanistan for—by then—six years, and it’s all quiet. “It seems that there is a double standard in operation,” Schell writes with that augury of a seems that hints just enough at its validity: “If there is, however, it is a double standard that we invented, and invited the world to apply. And—what is at times even more annoying—we find that we, too, must continue to apply it, and measure ourselves by it. To hold ourselves to a higher standard is to invite judgment by others according to that same standard—that is the price that anyone pays who wants to uphold any standard whatever. In this case, the standard is the standard of liberty. We cannot really expect the Soviets to offer the Afghans a liberty that they withhold from their own people. But we can and do expect our government to refrain from imposing repression on others which we would find hateful at home.”  Come to think of it, it would be a shame to leave these words buried in digital form on a CD or a library shelf when they could so easily be revived in print, at least for a bit, in an upcoming column.

Those Comment and Talk of the Town pieces were notoriously unsigned, back when The New Yorker upheld one of journalism’s nobler traditions, as only The Economist does now: Anonymity has its value—not because it affords the writer a chance to hide (how could he, when he has a magazine’s or a newspaper’s reputation to uphold?), but because it affords the idea a chance not to be outdone by its scribe. It is journalism. We are in the end just hacks. Let the ideas loose. But I find myself giddy at using the Complete New Yorker’s excellent search engine to finally put names to these anonymous pieces—to see what Schell wrote all those years, what Bill McKibben was writing (not what Updike was writing because the moment he went hardback with his non-fiction, he made sure to tell us), what William Finnegan, Ian Frazier, Lawrence Weschler and so many other exceptions (and still-working) to hackdom penned all these years.

If The New Yorker can do all this for, what, $120? Why not everyone else? But what everyone else? It’s not as if the quality is out there, begging to be archived. Time? Newsweek? L’Express? Might as well archive a trinity of landfills. Esquire? For the 1960s and 70s maybe, but beyond that, it’s been Maxim’s godparent. Playboy would be more interesting. Commentary or Le Monde Diplomatique, maybe, for the right-left markers. The New York Times? Well, yes, but that’d run to fifty CDs and $5,000, and why bother when Times Select, the newest way to put gates around the marketplace of ideas, is making the archives stingingly available (you’re limited to a hundred peeks per month). The Atlantic and The Nation, certainly, but then what? Fact is that the New Yorker has had no likes in quality or archival usefulness, nothing that packs so much literary and historical TNT in such density. Past tense, of course. Not even today’s New Yorker lives up to its archival value, though Remnick has been restoring some of the luster. What would Liebling say of all this New Yorker on CD? No idea whatsoever. But here’s the very last thing he said in the pages of the magazine for which he wrote for so many decades, the very last line of a review of Camus’ wonderful Notebooks, as apt today about the CD collection at hand: “But it is intensely enjoyable for its own sake—a long conversation with a companion who does not pall.”