Book Reviews


Selected letters offer insider look at The New Yorker's first years

Sunday, April 2, 2000

Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross
edited by Thomas Kunkel. Modern Library (Random House). 428 pages. $26.95.

     Among several recent "New Yorker" books, founding editor Harold Ross' selected letters provide glimpses behind the scenes of the 75-year-old magazine's first 25 years. "New Yorker" devotees need not read beyond this sentence; the book's historical interest speaks for itself. The rest of you may be enticed by the implicit voyeurism of reading someone else's mail, a pleasure enhanced when the correspondents are powerful, famous, or notorious.
     Ross teases J. Edgar Hoover, refusing to divulge a source. He apologizes to President Truman for the business office's failure to deliver the magazine promptly. He writes playfully, even flirtatiously to Ginger Rogers (no, she and Ross were never romantically involved). To Hemingway in 1948, he cajoles, "Are you ever going to write short stories again? My God."
     Despite his claim that "a journalist is entitled to no friends," Ross carries on epistolary conversations with a surprisingly diverse group of people -- John Hersey, Harpo Marx, E. B. White, in addition to the above-mentioned -- revealing different facets of his personality to each.
     Though he calls the "New Yorker" a "pure accident from start to finish," his notes to "New Yorker" contributors show Ross as a perfectionist, haggling with writers over commas, tone, diction. As he wryly observes, "There are a vast number of writers around who can't write."
     Given that Ross' use of language holds at least as much interest as his famous recipients, one wishes that Thomas Kunkel's index included subjects, too. Then we might look up bureaucracy, and turn to page 313; or lawyers, 222, 313; editors, 39, 282; and so on. Save for this minor lapse, Kunkel's collection has done a great service to journalists, readers of the "New Yorker," and students of twentieth-century literature.
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)


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