Following on the previous anthology, The 40s (2014), the editors of the New Yorker continue to mine the magazine’s impossibly rich history.
With the possible exception of Esquire, there has been no general-interest magazine in the history of American journalism more influential, and more packed with talent, than the New Yorker. It’s arguable when the magazine’s heyday took place, but many knowledgeable readers place it in the tenure of William Shawn, “quiet, subtle, secretive, elliptical, and, to some, quite strange,” who succeeded Harold Ross in January 1952 and set to work building his own legacy. This volume contains work by writers who are still influential today—and some who have been all but forgotten. Joseph Mitchell, interest in whom has recently revived, turns up early, in a section called “American Scenes,” reporting from the front lines of the postwar civil rights movement. Dwight McDonald, little known today, turns in a fine portrait of the activist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers, who—the sexist and ageist past being what it is—is described as looking “like an elderly schoolteacher or librarian.” In a similar vein, profiling the emerging movie star Marlon Brando in 1957 at a length unthinkable today, Truman Capote sets off with the odd observation, “Most Japanese girls giggle.” As he shows, Brando sometimes gave them reason to. The portrait is every bit as serious, though, as Lillian Ross’ reportage on the making of the now-classic John Huston film The Red Badge of Courage (1951). Other highlights: a forward-looking piece by Roald Dahl anticipating the wine craze of later decades and a deeply curious short story by John Updike describing in passing the antics of a party-going woman who, “insanely drunk, was throwing herself around as if wanting to break a bone.” Other contributors include A.J. Liebling, James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Nadine Gordimer.
Superb: a gift that keeps on giving and a fine introduction to the life and letters of a supposedly (but not really) gray decade.