The Big Bang

Summary Judgment Auntie Em over at emdashes has issued a challenge of sorts — what do I think about the inaugural issue of the New Yorker? It is not in the character of Squib to flinch at a dare, so plunge I shall.

[ornamental dingbat]

About a week ago a linguistics-enabled friend mentioned that any mature language gets completely overhauled every two generations. That is, if you look at language samples from the same society taken about fifty years apart, there will be large changes in usage, vocabulary, cultural assumptions, and so on.

I now think of this whenever I look at any of the pre-WWII material on the CNY. To be precise, I think: These people are clearly from another planet. I suppose there are those who find it quaint; I find it a little unnerving. Quaint and unnerving. But eventually, as with a journey to, say, Burma, you do get used to it.

First off, it’s very difficult to evaluate the early New Yorker without a proper understanding of what accepted magazines of the day were doing. At a guess, it did represent, even in nascent form, an exceptionally clever and urbane piece of work.

What’s surprising about the 1925 New Yorker, I suppose, is how much its overall look resembles the New Yorker of even the late 1950s. After full-color ads arrived and, later, Tina Brown cast her imprint, the resemblance had strayed enough to be very noticeable.

The advisory editors listed on page 1 include Marc Connelly, Rea Irvin, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott. A talented bunch, by any measure.

It all starts with a section called “Of All Things,” which consists mainly of about 15 single-graf items of effortful wit; it reads a little bit as if the New York Observer and the old Spy magazine had hijacked Esquire‘s annual Dubious Achievement Awards section.

Actually, probably a majority of the magazine is presented in those paragraph-long bursts. They overdosed on the ornamental paragraph-dividing dingbats a little.

On page 6 is a whimsical single-page piece called “The Story of Manhattankind,” unexpectedly — and hilariously — bylined “Sawdust,” which reads like Art Buchwald on LSD. (It was the first of a series.) There’s a rather effective joke about Jews in New York, and there’s a joke about the name “New Amsterdam” eliciting the wrath of “the censors,” which brings to mind Will Hays or somebody. The thing is really rather funny, and it also reveals a point that should in retrospect be obvious– namely, that this was first and foremost a humor magazine. It may have been urbane and stylish, but they wanted laughs.

On page 9 is the magazine’s very first profile. It’s about the “impresario” of the Metropolitan Opera, a certain Giulio Gatti-Casazza, it’s about a page long, and it’s bylined “Golly-Wogg.” It’s right up there with the legendary 1957 profile on Marlon Brando by “Squizzle-Squazz.”

Hey, there’s even a squib! Right there on page 19. It’s incomprehensible.

The “Moving Pictures” column is authored by none other than … Will Hays Jr.! What is up with that?

All in all, a fine start. Clearly Ross had something specific in mind, and he damn well did it. It’s rough in places, but it’s recognizably the New Yorker.

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3 Responses to The Big Bang

  1. zp says:

    Love the post, “dearie.” And I love the angle you took.

    It’s odd how reading a full blown (and now canonized, which makes a difference) novel from that period of American lit doesn’t feel so linguistically strange. Maybe when I pick up a bound book of fiction, I expect some estrangement from its language, which I assume is “literary” rather than “dated” (not that that is bad). . .

    I’m more often struck by the differences in language you describe in less literary works from the period: cooking, advice, magazines . . . and I think trying to be funny would heighten the use of slang, references, all that. Sort of the way TV gets dated to the point of incomprehensibility.

    I actually had a book of cocktail recipes written by an early NYer writer, I think the book was called — Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion (haw haw). But it was so generally unreadable (dense, chatty) and offensively racist it finally disappeared off my shelves.

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks!

    I think novels are also written with a longer horizon in mind. Also, if canonized novels cease speaking to us anymore, they cease being canonized. That logic isn’t exactly airtight, but there is a kind of filtering process that ensures that novels that get taught in high school and college are relatively comprehensible by definition.

    Magazines are rough because you’re just inundated with the odd verbiage. All the little journalistic items, and then all the ads, every one of them trying to grab the attention of the ideal 1925 reader and without a thought to the reader of posterity. I wonder if there’s a connection with trying to be witty and the speed at which material gets dated. There probably is. Wit is almost inherently about exploiting the existence of new memes — because comedy is predicated on surprise, and using new bits of life is an easy way to do that — and the nature of life is that most of those memes won’t be very meaningful later on. If I write, “your aim is about as good as Dick Cheney’s,” the reader of 2006 is with me all the way; the reader of 2026, much less so.

  3. zp says:

    “Also, if canonized novels cease speaking to us anymore, they cease being canonized. That logic isn’t exactly airtight, but there is a kind of filtering process that ensures that novels that get taught in high school and college are relatively comprehensible by definition.”

    Oh totally. I was trying to imply that without going there.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “by definition” but I think there’s an obverse arguemnt in there somewhere as well. Not only is there a filtering process (high schoolers read the relatively comprehensible Portrait of the Artist, say) but there’s a disciplining process, (college students are taught to read Ulysses) so we learn to make that particular kind of incomprehensible meaningful.

    Theories of funny are interesting too . . .

    And the Cocktail Guide was Crosby Gaige’s and it was 1945, on further “research.” That is, Google.

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