“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.