The Big Bang

February 22, 2006

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.