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. The minor key, that was the essential matter. Somerset Maugham once described it a s "those wonderful New Yorker stories which always end when the hero goes away, but he doesn't really go away, does he?" Even White herself despaired of the "slight, tiny, mood story." And while it is true that a certain kind of wan tone infects the lesser stories of the period, White, as well as her successor Gustave Lobrano, were remarkably successful in finding new young writers--often enough New York writers--who gave the magazine an original kind of vitality and its readers something mysterious and lasting to hold on to as the weekly issues came and went.
Among the first great New York writers that Katharine White began to publish was John Cheever, a shy young man then, in 1935, barely surviving and writing stories in his three-dollar-a-week apartment in the Village. Rather than pant after the established writers that it could not yet afford, White's fiction department established writers that it could not yet afford, White's fiction department established a strong personal bond with Cheever, as it did with many other newcomers, and his name and voice became as much a part of the magazine's as E.B. White's and James Thurber's, A.J. Liebling's and Joseph Mitchell's. This was The New Yorker at its best, and the impact of new arrivals continues to energize the magazine.
It's not hard to imagine that these new voices will speak to different readers in different ways. When I was a student, Knopf published that great read volume, The Stories of John Cheever. Cheever was far from obscure--readers of The New Yorker had come to celebrate him as the most original of the fifties story writers--but my generation knew him far less well, not half as well as we knew Updike, Roth, and the emerging Raymond Carver, to say nothing of younger names like Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore. The reviews for the Cheever book were extraordinary and the word of mouth even better, and so it reached us. Read straight through, the earlier Cheever stories especially evoked an era as distant and as compelling to my generation as the loping steps of Joe DiMaggio or the tom-tom drums of Gene Krupa.
"These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat," Cheever wrote in his preface. "Here is the last of that generation of chain-smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like 'the Cleveland Chicken,' sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
The secondary effect of that book was to drive me and many of my friends toward The New Yorker. And here we came upon writers as various as Ann Beattie and Donald Barthelme, Harold Brodkey and Max Frisch, Veronica Geng and Jamaica Kincaid.
Cheever's evocation of "his" New York is resonant for everyone, but even he was writing his earliest stories, he was evoking just one of a multitude of possible New Yorks. That diversity is a New York constant and a constant of The New Yorker. So it seemed a natural idea to gather some of the best examples of the magazine's city fiction and -as a celebration of the authors, the city, and the magazine--put them together in this book.
The stories here reflect the city's moods and crises over seventy-five years, from the highlife so artfully implied in Ludwig Bemelmans's "Mespoulets of the Splendide" to the AIDS catastrophe in Susan Sontag's "The Way We Live Now." It's true that the table of contents is less complete than one might wish. James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, William Burroughs, Oscar Hijuelos, Claude Brown, Richard Price--all these writers, and many more, have been underrepresented in, or absent from, the magazine. It's also true, by the way, that some of the grittiest stories we are publishing now are not set in New York. Junot Diaz, one of the magazine's most distinguished recent discoveries, writes of urban New Jersey, just across the Hudson. Still, what the magazine did publish, and the writers it did discover and nurture, are legion, and they have helped to create a powerful and complex portrait of New York--one tat we hope will be well represented by this anthology.
The main criterion for inclusion in Wonderful Town was the quality of endurance. Which of our New York stories seemed to Last? The New Yorker famously published Thomas Wolfe's "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," but as much as one wants to include Wolfe, his dialect story doesn't seem to have it anymore. Similarly, as a great fan of "The Golden Spur" and other novels, I wish Dawn Powell's half-dozen efforts for The New Yorker in the late thirties were up to her standard; they aren't, really. Some chestnuts, such as Irwin Shaw's "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," stood up just fine but perhaps not quite so well as the others that have been less often anthologized--in Shaw's case, "The Sailor off the Bremen." But where the chestnut also seemed supreme--Jean Stafford's "Children Are Bored on Sunday" is a prime example--there seemed no sense in exacting a perverse penalty of exclusion.
As with any anthology, this one will draw complaints. Where's Peter DeVries? (Well, his best stories are in the suburbs.) Where's Harold Brodkey? (In St. Louis, mainly.) And with such a wealth of writers to draw on, even a thousand pages would not have the trick entirely. As there is barely enough room in this city to contain all of its busy, funny, angry, joyful, carping, and canny inhabitants, there was barely enough room to contain the wide range of stories we agreed upon. Argument is half the fun. After all, it was argument--the fierce and loving debate between Harold Ross and Katharine White way back when--that set The New Yorker's fictional vessel on its course.
--David RemnickFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wonderful Town by Edited by David Remnick. . Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.