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Monday, August 20, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Introduction

One year ago on Round and Square (20 August 2011)—Displays of Authenticity: Real Coffee
[a] Love RF
I was sixteen—an awkward kid who loved politics, read a lot, learned what I would later think of as "cultural theory" from dad at the dinner table, remembered deeply my mother's love for English literature, worked summers at grandpa's gas station in Finley, North Dakota, missed the medical tales and golf lessons from my other grandpa, and listened to stories of Norwegian immigrant kin told by my two grandmas and great-grandma. The grandmas rounded out the enculturation process, even after the parents and grandpas had taught me just about everything I thought I needed to know. 

I had learned a lot, but I was a high school sophomore who hadn't even bothered to get my driver's license yet (I didn't care about it at all until I turned seventeen). All I thought about was running, swimming, reading (a little), and politics. I went to school, did some homework, and got barely reasonable grades in what was at least a fairly ambitious program of math, science, humanities, and languages. Don't get the wrong idea. That was just dumb chance. I was drifting, and spent more time skipping out of classes to play golf or go running or play basketball than studying. In a fog of cluelessness reserved only for teenagers, I didn't fully comprehend the purpose of "homework." I missed a lot of school with barely defensible "colds," and watched more television than I can even begin to defend. Green Acres? Petticoat Junction? They were old even back then..and yet I somehow watched all of the episodes (instead of learning Latin or practicing the violin). I was a mess.

But then I fell in love. 

Deeply. Head over heels. Seriously, this was cliché stuff..."in real." It was a high school love affair that blossomed, soured after college, and soared again in middle age. It is the stuff of (very long) dreams. The love is not over, by any means. And now I am teaching it.

[b] Change RF
It was all because of Mr. Fox, my sophomore English teacher. I'll remember him forever, because he introduced me to the first companion that made my academic heart go pitter-patter. We are still together today (although we separated for twenty years). No, I don't mean Mr. Fox. I have lost touch with him, but wish that he knew how much he changed my life. What I that a magazine changed my life.  It was a hundred glossy pages, published every single week, and it threw me for a loop more than anything seems to have any right to do. From that autumn day back in 1974, I would never be far (in good times and very bad) from the literary love of my life. You see, Mr. Fox introduced us to each other, and it was (cliché alert) love at first sight. It lasted, even through the dark years that were to come in the late-1980s and 1990s, and we are back together again today. Here's what Mr. Fox said back in 1974:

          If you care about writing—really want to excel and connect with readers 
          in a way that goes far beyond what people write in most newspapers, 
          magazines, and books—you need to read a magazine. If you read it every
          week, and really think about the stories and articles in it, you will become 
          a much better writer than you ever imagined. You need to subscribe to 
          The New Yorker.

The what? That must be an "out east" thing.

[c] Swing RF
Seriously, I was a teenager in Minnesota. It was the mid-1970s. All New Yorker meant to me was "out east"—a phrase we used regularly for everything from Altoona, Pennsylvania to Wilmington, Delaware...and New York City. Heck, even Cincinnati and Detroit were "out east" to those of us who lived in what we came to know as the tri-state area (Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota). I hadn't thought of New York more than a dozen times in my entire, Midwestern-protected life until that day. But there it was. Mr. Anthropomorphic Canidae was telling us that there was a magazine that would change our lives. I must admit that I didn't listen to teachers a great deal back in high school. I was usually too busy with more important things (such as the state of the University of Oregon track team and Minnesota politics), as they seemed back then. Somehow, though, I did hear Mr. Fox and his words about The New Yorker. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about it. 

Somehow (and this was much more difficult than it would be today) I got the information I needed to subscribe to this magical, mysterious magazine. It was not possible just to type "The New Yorker" into Google...or Bing. Trust me (it was 1974). In any case, I worked with dad (who agreed with Mr. Fox, but was still somewhat bemused by the intensity of my subscriptional desires). We sent off the check and I waited.

For six- to eight-weeks. 

[d] Change RF
That's how it worked back then, before you could just subscribe on your iPad or Kindle. Today, I get my new New Yorker every Sunday night on my Kindle. Back in the day, I waited from November into February until I received my first issue. "My word," I thought (channeling my grandmas). What is going on with such a peculiar cover and a hundred pages of commentary, story, review, and reflection? I had never seen anything like it. My regular reading fare was more in the range of the Minneapolis Tribune (not yet the Star-Tribune), the Fargo Forum, Track & Field News, and (this is even more odd than the track stuff), The Congressional Quarterly. Not one of those publications was even close to the strange, glossy magazine that I held that day (and, indeed, those issues arrived in brown paper wrappers that left the brilliant cover art untouched). This is unlike today's situation, which leaves the glossy covers streaked with postage bar codes.

That day in February 1975, as I peeled the brown wrapper off of Eustace Tilly (on what happened to be his fiftieth anniversary), I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. It was as though the magazine spoke to me and my various kinship alliances and influences. You see, my father and uncle and I had already spent many summer and autumn days in the early 1970s canoeing the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota. We knew how to steer, paddle, and portage (the last of these is overwhelmingly important). It was already part of my life, but I never, ever, had thought of it as "literature." Not once. But here was a major essay in an elite "eastern" magazine writing about my life with my family. About canoes. It was like the heavens opening their portals to me.

I paddled in.

And how on earth would my first issue have been the third-week-in-February "annual" issue? I don't know, but I saw what I then regarded as the aristocrat and the butterfly (Eustace Tilly is at the top of this post) for the first time. He didn't matter once I started paging through the contents, though. All I know is that the first thing that I read in depth—other than a few memorable cartoons—was John McPhee's piece on The Survival of the Bark Canoe. It was dad and uncle and me...but in a brilliant, yet understated authorial voice. And that was not all. It was actually The Survival of the Bark Canoe...I. What the heck was up with the "1?" You mean (I thought) that this was going to go on...and on...? You mean I would read about McPhee (already a growing hero for me as he paddled in an "authentic" canoe) for the next few weeks? 

Yup, exactly. 

[e] Tri RF
That was William Shawn's New Yorker. He was the quintessential editor, and only the second one in the (then) fifty-year history of the magazine. I didn't know about Shawn yet, and I hardly even understood McPhee and his flimsy-thin river boats. All I knew was that I was enthralled. McPhee wrote in exactly the way that I thought all people should—it was clear, deep, and complicated. He wrote beautifully, with a sense of story and analysis. That day—and forever ever after—he became my hero. Everything I do today I do because John McPhee understood the relationship between telling a story and giving all of the details. And I have read him thrice...or more. Every word of every book he ever wrote.

It changed my life, and I was not the only one—not even the only teenager from Minnesota. Take a look at what Garrison Keillor had to say about The New Yorker twenty years before I ever heard of it. I fell in love with John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Ved Mehta, and Roger Angell. Keillor, a few years my senior, had found other worthies. Both of us blushed at the ostentation in the magazine's advertisements; both of us (two decades apart) had no qualms. The payload was in the text, not the advertisements. It was terrific stuff, and we wanted more of it.

          I’ve been reluctant to collect [these stories] in a book because 
          they were written in revolt against a [failed novel] and out of 
          admiration of a magazine, The New Yorker, which I first saw in 
          1956 in the Anoka Public Library. Our family subscribed to Reader’s 
          Digest, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Boy’s Life, and 
          American Home. My people weren’t much for literature, and they 
          were dead set against conspicuous wealth, so a magazine in which 
          classy paragraphs marched down the aisle between columns of 
          diamond necklaces and French cognacs was not a magazine they 
          welcomed into their home. I was more easily dazzled than they and to 
          me The New Yorker was a fabulous sight, an immense glittering ocean 
          liner off the coast of Minnesota, and I loved to read it. I bought copies and 
          smuggled them home, though with a clear conscience, for what I most 
          admired was not the decor or the tone of the thing but rather the work 
          of some writers, particularly The New Yorker’s great infield of Thurber, 
          Liebling, Perelman and White. 

          They were my heroes: four older gentlemen, one blind, one fat, one 
          delicate, and one a chicken rancher, and in my mind they took the field 
          against the big mazumbos of American Literature, and I cheered for them. 
          I cheer for them now, all dead except Mr. White, and still think (as I 
          thought then) that it is more worthy in the eyes of God and better for us 
          as a people if a writer makes three pages sharp and funny about the 
          lives of geese than to make three hundred flat and flabby about God or 
          the American people.[1]
***  ***
This series tells the story of The New Yorker. It also tells about a class I will be teaching in the autumn of 2012 for a group of sixteen Beloit College students. We'll get to know The New Yorker, and I'll be posting just about everything from class materials to "readings" of fascinating issues during the magazine's history. We'll start tomorrow with the syllabus for the course. We'll move from there to months when the magazine was published in the aftermath of monumental events—November 1929, December 1941, August 1945, December 1963, August-September 1974...and so forth), as well as "ordinary time," when extended reflection of relatively unchanging circumstances is called for (let's say...July 1955).

We'll have fun. It's also American history...and a way that you may never have considered. We're on to something here, and it will take us weeks and weeks (and probably years and years) to play it all out. Join me (and my first-year seminar class—they will graduate in 2016) for this series on The New Yorker and the World.  

Just like that day (for me) in the autumn of could change your life. 

Click here for a thorough introduction to the course ("The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions").
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j       
[f] You'll get there RF
[1] Garrison Keillor, Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces (New York: Atheneum, 1982), x-xi.

Keillor, Garrison. Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

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