Guilty Consumers’ Paradise: The New Yorker , Circa 1950

The World Through a Monocle: ‘The New Yorker’ at Midcentury , by Mary F. Corey. Harvard University Press, 251 pages, $25.95.

Anyone involved in creating or canonizing The New Yorker of the 40′s and 50′s will hate Mary Corey’s The World Through a Monocle: ‘The New Yorker’ at Midcentury . That’s my guess. But I found it stimulating, not just in thinking about how to think about The New Yorker but about magazines in general. The title is misleading. It suggests that you’re in for another celebration of the uniqueness of the magazine. Here at ‘The New Yorker’ , Remembering Mr. Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ , The World Through a Monocle –nothing jarring in that. In fact, though, Ms. Corey has more in common with Ninotchka than Brendan Gill or Ved Mehta. A lecturer in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she applies her synthesizing vision to questions that editors and writers don’t have the time or the disposition to think about very often. What is the overall message of a magazine, including its advertising? What is its attitude toward women? What is its implicit class voice? If Ms. Corey had chosen to write about Jane Austen or the Free Speech movement, this approach would be cliché, another squirt from the cultural studies gun, but applied retroactively to The New Yorker in what she defines as its “greatest period of cultural potency,” it’s intriguing. She’s trying to find out not only what talented writers as diverse as E.B. White, John Hersey, St. Clair McKelway and John Cheever had in common, but what readers actually took away from the magazine.

First, a warning: There are many things you won’t find there. Ms. Corey has no opinion on David Remnick. She does not say whether she thinks Tina Brown destroyed William Shawn’s legacy or resurrected the spirit of New Yorker founder Harold Ross. She does not care if Lillian Ross and William Shawn had a secret alliance. I suspect if you said to Ms. Corey, “meet me at the Century,” she’d think, “Century City?”

Ms. Corey’s heresy–the reason this book will not find a place on the New Yorker buff’s shelf–is that she doesn’t care about the difference between editorial matter and advertising copy. The reader takes them in, in the same way. She means nothing personal in applying this idea to The New Yorker . She tips her beret to the solidity of the famous wall that separated The New Yorker ‘s editors and writers from its advertising salespeople. Few magazines kept the wall intact as The New Yorker did when it came time to write about big business and pollution or the dangers of smoking. This purity, to Ms. Corey, is admirable but not material. The definition of a successful magazine is that the ads and editorial content work together, not apart. ” The New Yorker served its postwar audience alternately as a shopping guide, an atlas and a Bible …,” she writes. “By combining these disparate elements, the magazine was able to transmit a version of the real world that incorporated some of that world’s most troubling features. Advertisements for cigarettes or whiskey or luxury liners were not seen as inimical to serious articles concerning African-American heroin addicts, unwed mothers, or the bombing of the Bikini Atoll.”

Ms. Corey is not the first to point out that there was something weird about all those Tiffany and De Beers diamond ads in the pages of a magazine that championed life on a small Connecticut farm with a manual water pump. The mixed message of The New Yorker was something cultural critics such as Mary McCarthy were pointing out as early as the 40′s, and by the 60′s it had become a commonplace. But Ms. Corey is as far as I know the first to claim that the ads were not just reflective of The New Yorker ‘s success but key to it. She writes: “For socially conscious people of status and wealth, virtue was a precious commodity–a quality that made it easier to savor privilege.” The guilty consumer was The New Yorker ‘s best customer and its ultimate product. At its peak, the magazine was third in circulation among weeklies, behind only Time and Newsweek . It was a national power.

Ms. Corey is less sure-footed when she analyzes the way The New Yorker depicted various groups in its pages, specifically communists, minorities and women. (The list seems arbitrary. Why not vegetarians?) She is often obvious. Her theorizing gets muddled. She substitutes the zinger for the larger thought. She points out, for instance, that The New Yorker took considerable risks in opposing Communist witch hunts at home but approved of America’s participation in the conflict in Korea. “The magazine’s approach to the Cold War [was] that Communism was indeed a threat to the United States,” she writes, “but was not a threat in the United States. Anti-Communism was strictly an export good.” Then she moves on to gender. She sees “a snarling contempt for women and a unequivocal disinterest in equality” in the magazine, adding that “the closer [it] got to home, the farther [it] veered from democratic principle.” What about those American communists we just heard about? Or, for that matter, African-Americans? During founding editor Harold Ross’ tenure, The New Yorker practiced a pointy-elbowed humor that spared no one. His was the humor of the speakeasy. As Ms. Corey points out, under Shawn, things tightened up. “‘Kindly’ and ‘pleasant-faced’ Negroes [now] seem[ed] to abound in the postwar New Yorker ,” she notes, adding that even what she calls the “‘Maids Say the Darndest Things’ genre,” “a series of humorous offerings describing servants’ foolishness, illiteracy, bad grammar, and inability to decode the upper-middle-class text, entirely excluded black servants from its sizable canon.”

Ms. Corey is mystified by this exclusion, which seems to me to follow the dictum that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual classes. The Irish were fair game in The New Yorker , as were the Italians and Southerners, who to many of the magazine’s writers were as exotic as Catholics. Establishment New Yorkers who were Jewish (albeit reluctantly), like William Shawn and the Fleischmann family, the magazine’s owners, felt more warmly toward blacks, with whom they didn’t compete and whose history of oppression felt familiar. This sort of biographical explanation is hardly foolproof, but Ms. Corey should have explored it. As it is, the J-word never appears in these pages. As a Hegelian, Ms. Corey is allergic to biographical analysis–we are all playthings of larger cultural forces. Too bad, because she might have found that the personality of William Shawn alone explained a lot to her, especially the magazine’s complex attitude toward women. It hired them, while it made fun of them, yet by 1954 a majority of New Yorker readers were women.

Also, Ms. Corey mistakenly assumes that everything that is in the pages of a magazine is put there for a purpose. Cobbling together a magazine is, in fact, a semi-desperate act.

All the same, I admire this book. It has the smell of honest intellectual effort to it, a whiff of Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, two writers who overcame misgivings similar to Ms. Corey’s to become important New Yorker contributors. While Mary Corey is no McCarthy or Macdonald, she’s a capable writer. And reader. She uncovers The New Yorker ‘s ideology without trampling those cool columns of elegant prose. She fights it, but like Ninotchka, she has a taste for bright, twinkling lights.