A penetrating look into what really gave America's most notable magazine its distinctive punch
"The early history of New York
is obscured in myth," observed the pseudonymous author of "The Story of
Manhattankind" in the first issue of The New Yorker (21 February 1925),
"and to separate the purely historical from the purely hysterical is no
The same must be said of the
magazine itself. The purely historical remained hidden until The
New Yorker's archives were opened to scholars in the mid-nineties, although
the hysterical--pure and otherwise--dominates the anecdotes in memoirs
of some of the magazine's original staff members.
Late in 1924 Harold Ross assembled
a small staff to create a new kind of weekly humor magazine, a "reflection
in word and picture of metropolitan life . . . with gaiety, wit, and satire."
His target audience was affluent, local, educated sophisticates. This is
the image he sold to Manhattan advertisers. By 1930 the magazine
could withstand the Depression even as its predecessors collapsed.
In 1952 W. H. Auden declared The New Yorker "the best comic magazine in
existence." In 1994 no one disputed Tina Brown's claim that its cartoons
constitute "a sort of national treasure."
Drawing on archival records
and works by major contributors Judith Yaross Lee traces how artists, writers,
and editors realized Ross's vision. This first scholarly history
of The New Yorker chronicles the magazine's efforts to define an editorial
formula that appealed to readers more interested in Picasso's Paris than
in Will Rogers's Oklahoma. Lee recovers hundreds of still-funny cartoons,
stories, and verses that were eclipsed because The New Yorker was not indexed
and because its editors, until 1969, refused to include a table of contents.
Also, she dispels cherished myths of the early years. Far from relying
on a few insider wits, the editors scoured unsolicited submissions for
new artists and writers, honing every item and inviting new ones.
Misogynous in neither policy nor practice, the magazine cultivated women
both as readers and contributors. While the beleaguered Little Man
staggered through tales of the war between the sexes, equally discouraged
women set their version of the battles into rhyme. Lee shows how The New
Yorker's eminence in cartoons blossomed as the captions were reduced to
one line and as the subjects tweaked class and race prejudice, ridiculed
feminism and modernism, lampooned urban customs and types, and created
new relations beteween visual and verbal wit.
Judith Yaross Lee, an associate professor of interpersonal communication
at Ohio University, is the author of Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America
(University Press of Mississippi).