Commentary Magazine


The New Yorker

To the Editor:

I would like to ask you a few questions about Hilton Kramer’s article on the New Yorker. (August) which I have just read. Is it a “drawing-room publication” that would throw out everything in the magazine to run in full John Hersey’s article on Hiroshima? During the Second World War one of the editors of the New York Times told me that the war reporting in the New Yorker was on a plane which he wished the Times would emulate, since it related the reporting of the war with the social and economic conditions against which it was fought. Is Mr. Salinger a drawing-room comedian? The letters from Paris, from London, indeed from all over the world—are they provincial? Was Rebecca West’s reportage on the Greenville Lynching Trial removed from reality? Are Dwight Macdonald and Richard Rovere provincial? Was it a removal from reality for the New Yorker to send Edmund Wilson to Israel to write “The Dead Sea Scrolls,” which has since been acknowledged by scholars to be a pioneering work in this vast new field of Biblical research? Were the articles on the Puerto Ricans in New York, on juvenile delinquency, on the Ford Foundation—these come to mind at random but the list might be indefinitely expanded—characteristic of “an image of life that is provincial, adolescent, and at several removes from reality”?

Mr. Thurber’s book is an exercise in self-exploitation at the expense of Ross and the magazine which employed him and this Mr. Kramer did not have the wit to see. There is a true book to be done on Ross, and one day it will be written. To use, as Mr. Kramer does, the episode of the suicide of Ross’s secretary as a symbol of what goes on in the New Yorker earns him some undreamed of rating for ineptitude and malice. Mr. Kramer is either ignorant—I can scarcely believe that he has read with any consistency the magazine he denounces—or perverse. But then it is easy to spot Mr. Kramer. It has become fashionable, I am told, among certain writers to pursue the avocation of New Yorker-baiting. It is amusing to observe that when these people do find something in the magazine to praise—in Mr. Kramer’s case Edmund Wilson’s literary articles—they do so as if the praiseworthy item had nothing whatever to do with the New Yorker editorial policy, and had appeared somewhere else! But the simple fact is that nothing will appease these critics because they find the New Yorker unforgivable on two grounds. If it were merely successful they might just manage to bear it; what deeply roils them, what they can’t forgive, is that it is also good.

S. N. Behrman
New York City

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Mr. Kramer writes:

For a man who jumps so quickly to accusations of ignorance and malice, Mr. Behrman is not a very attentive reader. I did not use “the episode of the suicide of Ross’s secretary as a symbol of what goes on in the New Yorker”—that is Mr. Behrman’s contribution. I suggested that the way Ross’s secretary chose to spend the money swindled from Ross showed that “He was clearly living out the fantasy life of ease and comfort . . . which the New Yorker works so hard to inspire in its readers.” One may argue this point, but not, I think, by distorting it into something else.

Mr. Behrman puts together an impressive resumé of the New Yorker’s reportage. It was a mistake on my part not to mention this aspect of the magazine, but I daresay it does not change anything I did say. Moreover, I doubt if everyone will be quite as impressed with this list of names as Mr. Behrman assumes. Surely Mr. Dwight Macdonald has been on an intellectual vacation at the New Yorker, a vacation which looks more and more like a retirement. When he got up a little of the old steam a couple of years ago to write an attack on the Cozzens myth, he published his essay in COMMENTARY, and it represented a point of view exactly the opposite of that which appeared in the New Yorker. I’ve read Mr. Rovere’s amiable Washington Letters; you would never guess from them that we have been living through a major political crisis. In fact, you wouldn’t learn much about Washington politics that you couldn’t find for your-self in a careful reading of the New York Times. When Mr. Rovere got round to writing seriously about the late Senator McCarthy, he fired his shot in Esquire, not in the New Yorker.

Let me underscore the point I made in my article: that the New Yorker suffers from the “divided, slightly schizophrenic outlook . . . which necessarily characterizes any publication or individual who feigns an interest in cultural matters without the curiosity or capacity to face them squarely on their own terms. . .” On one side of this division there are contributions which earn our respect; I named some, and Mr. Behrman names others. But on the other side there is precisely the phony sophistication which I spoke of, and which Mr. Thurber’s memoir traces so clearly to Ross’s own journalistic tastes. The fact that Mr. Behrman, even in the heat of his letter, cannot bring himself to defend these examples of phoniness means, I think, that he too sees this fundamental division in the magazine, even if he refuses to recognize it openly.

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