“The First Editions of T.J. Wise”

February 27, 2006

November 10, 1962 In the long list of New Yorker stalwarts, Dwight Macdonald is a curious fit. His “fiery” Trotskyist politics (the adjective comes courtesy of Diana Trilling) were of a type that the New Yorker more often disdained; I see his presence at the New Yorker as a kind of rebuke to those who think that the magazine only served the purpose of lulling the Great Upper Middlebrow into premature senility. The Macdonald who wrote 16 profiles over 27 years may have been tethered, but he was there.

Macdonald once worked for Fortune magazine. After the editors sliced his blistering attack on U.S. Steel to ribbons, he quit in disgust. Something of that spirit remained in the memorable lede of a 3-part profile: “The Ford Foundation is a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.”

The Macdonald piece selected for today happened to be his last, a fact I didn’t know when I read it. It’s about Thomas James Wise, one of those scurrilous people that the “Annals of Crime” rubric was pretty much designed to cover. Wise was a very successful British book collector around the year 1900, and he was very good at forging books and pamphlets from the late 19th century. The notion of the “first edition” was just coming into being, and he exploited that irrational interest so he could further fill his already considerable coffers. Eventually people began to notice, and well–it’s always amusing to see such bookish people get so mad, because they do it so carefully.

Misc. notes: Macdonald uses the word “gravamen,” which is swell. He also has a lovely zinger involving a librarian. And if you really want to know what Shawn’s New Yorker was like, check the page count for the issue.

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“Some Elements in a Dispute”

February 20, 2006

September 30, 1974 Assertion: Insofar as the CNY will (or can) be a notable factor in boosting the reputation of any contributor — this is open to debate — Calvin Trillin is one whose reputation will spike. You may think of him as that folksy urbanite, specialist in whimsies and drolleries, author of jocular opinion pieces and political doggerel in The Nation — I did, anyway — but the diffident facade cloaks a reporter of rare gifts. This was a surprise to me.

I could back up this position in any number of ways, but I would simply ask any skeptic to type “trill” up at “Author/Artist” and examine any ten of his abstracts at random, and then ask further if the skepticism remains.

His beat is, to be brief, America, and he has covered a bewildering variety of subjects with uncommon originality and wit. He has shown creativity as much in finding interesting subjects as in making dull subjects interesting. Not only is his easy prose style deceptively trenchant, it’s also remarkably unshowy, given his aims. Your favored wry deadpan scribbler may be Garrison Keillor or Fran Leibowitz; meaning neither an iota of disrespect, I wouldn’t trade Trillin for the both of them.

The short article featured today actually bears the title “Some Elements in a Dispute that Resulted in the Closing of Schools, the Shutting Down of Industry, the Wounding of Men, and the Cancellation of Football Games.” It’s a story that feels like a harbinger of our own outrage-fueled time, as it is about some innocuous schoolbooks that were (on slender provocation indeed) deemed to be irreligious by some parents in West Virginia. What seems less of our time is Trillin’s choice to explain the parents’ ire rather than to belittle them for it.


“The Podunk Mystery”

February 17, 2006

September 25, 1948 Today’s entry is by a very famous author not usually associated with the New Yorker: H. L. Mencken. Mencken, of course, was known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” spent most of his career at the Baltimore Sun, founded and edited the American Mercury, and wrote The American Language. (Wikipedia? Never heard of it.)

Mencken’s connection with the New Yorker is surprisingly strong; according to the CNY archive, he wrote 50 pieces for them between 1934 and 1949. Some of them look really fascinating: he looks at the Simplified Spelling movement, demonyms (e.g., Chicagoan), Anglicizations of European surnames, names for professions. Twenty-two of his entries are listed as “fiction,” and I have no idea what is up with that, whether Mencken had any talent for the art or what. (I think in the pre-Shawn era, the “Fiction” rubric was used rather loosely, but I’m not really certain of this.)

In the late 1940s the New Yorker gave him a rubric of his own, “Postscripts to the American Language,” to which, as the author of that work, only he was qualified to contribute. In this piece, Mencken takes up the word “Podunk,” and the result is remarkably engaging. Apparently, despite ample evidence to the contrary, lexicographers and newspaper editors alike insisted that there never was any such place as Podunk. Myths die hard: even after journalists discovered it, its status as fiction persisted. “Podunk” of course is associated with rubes, and you would think that the legendary derider of the “booboisie” would lay it on pretty thick. But while he does have a little fun at their expense, he manages to cut it both ways, lampooning the city slickers with equal vigor, particularly the well-lubricated reporters assigned to locate the place.

Toward the end of the article, Mencken explains that k-words are funny, listing the following towns as examples: Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hoboken, Hohokus, Yonkers, Squeedunk, Stinktown (the original name of Chicago), and … Brooklyn! Attention Williamsburg hipsters: the place you live is a punchline.

Today the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) lists the derivation of “Podunk,” accurately, as “the name of two New England towns.” Reason triumphs again (and Mencken too).

Note: If you don’t have the CNY and you would like to read some Mencken material from the New Yorker, the Google cache coughed up this reminiscence about Dreiser.


“A Pryor Love”

February 15, 2006

September 13, 1999 I wish my associations with Richard Pryor went further back. Of course he was a big star by the time I started paying attention, although his prime was just ending. I remember him for ordinary movies like Silver Streak, Superman III, Brewster’s Millions, The Toy, Hear No Evil, See No Evil. Some are funny, some not. But his monumental standup document Live in Concert is for me the main evidence of greatness. His “job interview” sketch with Chevy Chase in the first season of SNL is up there too.

I think I sensed that Pryor was an unusual movie star even back when I was a kid, he seemed willing to be weak onscreen, he was scrawny and goofy and brought none of the pomp of a “real” movie star. He was like a little sliver of reality trapped in these plastic worlds, which I appreciated in some vague way. Even his line readings were more Mingus than Nat King Cole. Whatever that means.

These thoughts are prompted by … our first reader submission! Manu from California writes:

Just before he passed away, I read a profile of Richard Pryor from the CNY, and was astounded by it. It was written by Hilton Als, and published in the September 13, 1999 issue. Anyway, it was much better than any obit I read after his death, really capturing the tragedies of his life and his impact.

Manu is certainly right about this. Als’s profile was a kind of premature obituary, really, and a lovely one at that. In the 1990s Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and thus was granted that subtle death-before-death that has also befallen Muhammad Ali. One can speak of them in the past tense; it’s a little weird. I guess it’s nice in a way; one stops projecting a career on such people. It becomes enough to hope that they’re doing OK. It’s a kind of intimacy.

As Manu notes, there are a lot of surprises tucked in the profile. I had read the piece when it came out, so a lot of it was familiar to me, but how he spent the year 1959 surprised me all over again.

When I was finished with the article, I immediately called up my library’s card catalog and reserved some of Pryor’s old albums. I have some catching up to do.


“The Holy Hair of the Muslims”

February 11, 2006

June 8, 1968 The controversy over the cartoons critical of Islam printed in European newspapers has seized the world’s attention. To some, it must seem that the Muslim prohibition against depicting the Prophet could not possibly be enough to fuel such a violent response. And, in truth, it probably is a combination of that prohibition and the nature of the content depicted in the cartoons. (That three far more offensive cartoons were mysteriously distributed within the Middle East didn’t help matters any.)

But the importance of Muhammad in the Muslim world, in and of itself, cannot be underestimated. Consider Ved Mehta’s 1968 article about the massive turmoil sparked by the theft of a single strand of the Prophet’s hair, an event that occurred in December 1963 in the contentious region of Kashmir. There, too, other factors played a role: the intractable politics of Kashmir, the larger context of India-Pakistan relations. Mehta relies a little too much on lengthy excerpts for my taste, but it is still a valuable piece of background to the current cartoon furor.

Note: The article is Part IV of a long series covering Mehta’s travels in India. The New Yorker got a little sloppy about numbering the parts of this series. I think the series ended up having eight parts, the last of which appeared in the April 11, 1970 issue. Still, wow. An eight-part series. It’s hard to imagine any editor anywhere, other than Shawn, who would have approved an eight-part series of this sort.


“FT, WU, and GTG”

February 9, 2006

December 21, 1940 A year or two back, a friend of mine sent his new girlfriend a surprise Western Union telegram to celebrate an anniversary. It wasn’t very expensive: less than $20 for an unforgettable love note is pretty cheap. I always thought that was a great idea, and I had it tucked away for that special occasion someday. But it turns out I’m out of luck: after 145 years, Western Union is discontinuing their service of sending telegrams. Aww. Verily, it is the end of an era.

Probably most people nowadays can’t remember the days when telegrams actually mattered. That’s why we have the CNY. With the stormclouds of World War II gathering on the horizon, Margaret Case Harriman reminded readers that not everyone was thinking dire thoughts. Some were spending their time composing and submitting “Pep-Grams,” pre-written congratulatory messages for those without the time or creativity to write their own messages. Some were employed as deliverers of Singing Telegrams. And some were busy forgetting their wives’ birthdays and pretending to be Western Union on the phone at the last minute — without success.


“To See and Not See”

February 6, 2006

May 10, 1993 Recently the media has given us two wonderful human-interest stories about people regaining the power of sight or hearing. In Coventry, England, a 74-year-old grandmother of twelve named Joyce Urch of Coventry, England, regained her eyesight after being blind for 26 years. A few days later we learned of 72-year-old Derek Glover of Lincolnshire, England, who regained his hearing on a ski lift after at least 15 years of severe hearing loss.

As is so often the case, lurking in the CNY is an illuminating article about an even more interesting case — a man who regained his eyesight after being blind since infancy. In 1993 the New Yorker ran an article by Oliver Sacks about a man pseudonymously identified as “Virgil,” a 50-year-old Oklahoman who opted to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight. As you can imagine, it’s quite a different thing to restore the eyesight of someone who never learnt how to see — at least Mrs. Urch could draw on vivid memories of sighted life. The difficulties Virgil underwent are truly fascinating and surprising — and of course Sacks is a master at spinning out the implications of such situations.