New York City is not only The New Yorker magazine's place of origin and its sensibility's lifeblood, it is the heart of American literary culture. Wonderful Town, an anthology of superb short fiction by many of the magazine's most accomplished contributors, celebrates the seventy-five-year marriage between a preeminent publication and its preeminent context with this collection of forty-four of its best stories from (so to speak) home.
East Side- Philip Roth's chronically tormented alter ego Nathan Zuckerman has just moved there, in "Smart Money." West Side- Isaac Bashevis Singer's narrator mingles with the customers in "The Cafeteria" (who debate politics and culture in four or five different languages) and becomes embroiled in an obsessional romance. And downtown, John Updike's Maples have begun their courtship of marital disaster, in "Snowing in Greenwich Village." John Cheever, John O'Hara, Lorrie Moore, Irwin Shaw, Woody Allen, Laurie Colwin, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Jean Stafford, Vladimir Nabokov--they and many other stellar literary guides to the city will be found in these pages.
Wonderful Town touches on some of the city's famous places and stops at some of its more obscure corners, but the real guidebook in and between its lines is to the hearts and the minds of those who populate the metropolis built by its pages. Like all good fiction, these stories take particular places, particular people, and particular events and turn them into dramas of universal enlightenment and emotional impact. The five boroughs are the five continents. New York is every great and ordinary place. Each life in it, and each life in Wonderful Town, is the life of us all.
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April 30, 2001
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Excerpt from Wonderful Town by David Remnick
From the moment Harold Ross published the first issue of The New Yorker, seventy-five years ago (cover price: fifteen cents), the magazine has been a thing of its place, a magazine of the city. And yet the first issue is a curiosity, a thin slice of the city's life, considering all that came after. Dated February 21, 1925, it offers only a hint of the boldness and depth to come, just a whisper of the range of response to its place of origin. What was certainly there from the start, however, was a determinedly sophisticated lightness, a silvery urbane tone of the pre-Crash era that was true to its moment (in some neighborhoods) and which also became the magazine's signature.
Of the issue's thirty-two pages, nearly all are taken up with jokes, light verse, anecdotes, squib-length reviews, abbreviated accounts of this or that incident, and harmless gossip about metropolitan life. With Rea Irvin's Eustace Tilley peering through his monocle at a butterfly on the cover, with its cartoons and drawings of uptown flappers, Fifth Avenue dowagers, and Wall Street men with their mistresses out on the town, with its very name, the magazine announced its identity--or at least the earliest version of it. There was a column called "In Our Midst" that delivered one-sentence news briefs on the city's forgotten and barely remembered ("Crosby Gaige, of here and Peekskill, is leaving for Miami next week to join the pleasure seekers in the sunny southland"); there was "Jottings About Town" by Busybody ("A newstand where periodicals, books and candy may be procured is now to be found at Pennsylvania Station"); there were reports of overheard talk on "Fifth Avenue at 3 p.m.," musical notes by "Con Brio," and theater notes by "Last Night." With an advisory board of editors that included Irvin, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woolcott, Ross's first issue had the feel of an amusement put together by an in-crowd of amused, and amusing, New York friends. One of the squibs, called "From the Opinions of a New Yorker," is typical of the throwaway, unearthshaking tone of that first issue:
New York is noisy.
New York is overcrowded.
New York is ugly.
New York is unhealthy.
New York is outrageously expensive.
New York is bitterly cold in winter.
New York is steaming hot in summer.
I wouldn't live outside New York for anything in the world.
It was essentially impossible to see what a various and ambitious publications The New Yorker would become. In his original prospectus for the magazine, Ross said he intended to publish "prose and verse, short and long, humorous, satirical and miscellaneous." No mention of fiction. The literary side of things did not initially strike Ross as right for him or even worth the struggle. For one thing, the competition for fiction seemed forbidding:
Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, fat with advertisements, were publishing such authors as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Lewis and Dos Passos, and paying them handsomely. Often enough they wrote their novels for art, their stories to live. Ross would later admit that he didn't pursue Hemingway "because we didn't pay anything." And as Thomas Kunkel, Ross's wonderful biographer, points out, Ross's preferences ran to humorous sketches and commentary--"casuals." Any trace of seriousness made him jumpy.
Fiction eventually became an essential part of the magazine for two reasons. When Ross hired Katharine White, in 1927, he was bringing into the magazine someone of enormous literary sophistication, someone who adored him but was willing to argue with him--and able to win. Her singular victory was the establishment of fiction as a regular component of The New Yorker. The second reason for the rise of fiction in the magazine was the American mood. With the Crash of the stock market, in 1929, the magazine's chronically bemused tone suddenly seemed out of step and out of tune. More and more, Katharine White succeeded in getting short stories--and short stories of a deeper sort--into the magazine.
But what kinds of stories? There have been many essays, some critical, some rather too defensive, describing a species of fiction known as "the New Yorker story"--a quiet, modest thing that tends to track the quiet desperation of a rather mild character and ends in some gentle apercu of recognition or dismay--or dismayed recognition. Or some such.