Reporters’ Heyday

05.20.14

The Decade When ‘The New Yorker’ Grew Up

Before World War II, Harold Ross’s New Yorker was no one’s idea of a heavy lift. Then it went off to war and grew up almost overnight. A new anthology shows how.

From its first issues in 1925, The New Yorker was a breezy newsweekly that published humorous reporting, local anecdotes, short stories, and cartoons. “Let the other magazines be important,” founder Harold Ross would say.

E.B. White lightheartedly predicted in a 1935 column that “there will be no war in 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, and 1940. There will be a small war in 1941 between Cambodia and Alberta over a little matter of some Irish Sweepstake ticket, and then there will be no war in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946.” World War II would expand Ross’s and the magazine's outlook considerably.

By 1939, New Yorker journalists like A.J. Liebling, John Lardner, and John Hersey were posted around the globe, writing the pieces from the front lines of World War II that would make them legendary reporters. (E.B. White would recover just fine from his disastrous prediction; he spent nearly 60 years at The New Yorker, co-wrote Strunk and White’s Elements of Style writing guide, and wrote possibly the most popular children’s novel of the 20th century, Charlotte’s Web.)

“I think The New Yorker really became itself and the magazine you recognize today in the Second World War,” New Yorker editor David Remnick told The Daily Beast. “Some of my heroes are thick on the ground in the ’40s—particularly A.J. Liebling, whom I revere. And to read him in his prime as a war correspondent is to me thrilling.”

Selections of that war reporting—along with other articles, profiles, book and film criticism, and short stories from the pages of  The New Yorker in the ’40s—are collected in a new anthology, The 40s: The Story of a Decade.

“For me it’s a way to see the magazine come into itself while it covers the most encompassing military and human catastrophe and drama of modern times,” Remnick said. “The magazine proved itself equal to the task in many ways.”

The book’s articles are grouped into sections—reporting, profiles, reviews, etc.—and each section is introduced by a current New Yorker staff writer such as George Packer, Jill Lepore, and Susan Orlean. The 40s is the first of three anthologies that The New Yorker will publish with Random House; anthologies of New Yorker writing in the ’50s and ’60s are in the works.

“It’s just an incredible expansion in the magazine’s mission.”

Henry Finder, The New Yorkers editorial director and the editor of The 40s, said he thumbed a lot of back issues, got input from New Yorker long-timers—like Roger Angell, who began contributing to the magazine in the ’40s and was its fiction editor for many years—and other staffers who had favorite articles from the period.

“We wanted to touch on some of the totemic figures and events of the era, but at the same time, we wanted to showcase the magazine’s strengths,” Finder said. “It’s not remotely encyclopedic, but the result is something that gives you the proverbial deep dive into what was happening in this era from an American perspective while also providing a showcase of the magazine’s best writers.”

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In A.J. Liebling’s “Paris Postscript (On the Fall of France),” a first-person account of life in the city during the weeks preceding Hitler’s arrival in June 1940, the sentiment shifts gradually from an expectation that Germany would come to its senses—and certainly before disrupting the social and commercial pulse of Paris—to a stunned realization that Paris would soon fall.

In “Letter from Rome,” Philip Hamburger’s report from Rome and Milan on V-E Day and the days after in 1945, the war was over and there was no question who had lost, i.e., those “Fascists dangling by their heels from a rusty beam of a gas station.” The reporter ends the piece from the bombarded church of Santa Maria della Grazie, with hopes that da Vinci's Last Supper—somewhere inside the rubble—was intact.

“What had started out as more about social observation and satire and humor,” Finder said of the magazine’s early years, “annexes these other forms of incredibly ambitious journalism and pieces of enormous moral weight. It’s just an incredible expansion in the magazine’s mission.”

The remainder of The 40s is devoted to other reporting, criticism, and short fiction. The profiles—for me, a highlight of the anthology—include a short feature on mid-career Walt Disney just back from a trip to South America, an enlightening afternoon talk with Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt during her years with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Too little space is devoted to film criticism given the cultural significance of movies—the mass entertainment of the ’40s—but that’s partly a matter of the relative infancy of film criticism and the fact that it occupied a less important role at the magazine during that period than it would in later years. Two reviews in particular are notable for their contrast to the reputations the films have since accrued: The review of His Girl Friday was mostly a comparison to the now-forgotten The Front Page from which it was remade, and Casablanca was good but “not quite up to Across the Pacific, Bogart’s last spyfest.”

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Much of The 40s has a similar tone and cadence to The New Yorker of 2014, but almost everything else about the magazine has changed—and much of that change coming since Remnick became editor of the magazine in 1998. The full archive is searchable online, and current issues are available on many platforms.

“The trick is to be able to do the kind of work that’s in the anthology but to be available the way people read in 2014 and onward,” Remnick said. “One person may think of the print magazine as a great technology, and another person may live a life where the phone or iPad or desktop or laptop is their preferred way. Our task is to be where they are.”

In 2005, The New Yorker published its entire catalog—more than 4,000 issues—as a set of eight DVD-ROMs that made the magazine widely available to historians, journalists, and readers. The set wasn’t user friendly by today’s standards, but the huge upside was that users could “google” 80 years of The New Yorker for the first time ever.

In the decade since, the magazine has rendered the DVD-ROMs obsolete with an online archive that is free to subscribers; publishes as much original content each week on its website as what appears in the print edition, and has expanded from the print edition to the iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, Nook, and Android devices.

“It’s foolish and luddite to insist that the only way to read is on pieces of paper—although, I have to say, it’s still a pretty damn good technology,” Remnick said. “It’s just not the only one.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Remnick if he had considered making every article from new issues available to download on Pocket—only certain articles can currently be displayed in full text on the popular reading app—and he immediately answered: “I promise you that’s coming very shortly.”