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The New Yorker Book Of The 40s: Story Of A Decade (William Heineman)

As the 1930s expired and Europe slouched towards war, readers of the New Yorker could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward was afoot.

Dwight Macdonald was not alone in perceiving it as "ostentatiously neutral" and concerned not with pogroms and holocausts but with fripperies and fun. "Its neutrality," noted Macdonald, "is itself a form of upper-class display, since only the economically secure can afford such Jovian aloofness from the common struggle."

Responsibility for this posture rested with Harold Ross, the magazine's founding editor. From its outset, in 1925, Ross was - as its present editor, David Remnick, writes in the introduction to this curate's egg of an anthology - determined to keep its tone light. He had disdain for intellectuals and comment. Seriousness bored him. What he sought was amusement, observation, humour and, perhaps above all, clarity. If one word could sum up his ethos it would be urbanity which, after much handwringing, Ross found epitomised in the work of EB White, the writer above all others who gave the New Yorker its trademark style.

Ross, as anyone familiar with the innumerable books about his magazine will attest, was a genius who did his damnedest to show the world he was the opposite. As such, he was not ashamed to ask questions which, in their brutal directness, made him seem like an ignorant hick. Once he wrote to John Cheever pointing that though a story had gone on for 24 hours, no-one appeared to have eaten anything. "Is Moby Dick the man or the whale?" was another typical query. Of a character in one short story, he asked the writer: "How he come to be living on mountainside?" The writer replied: "I don't know how he came to be living on a mountainside. This is just a story I made up, and I didn't make up that part."

The 1940s, especially the war years, were tough for the New Yorker, but you wouldn't guess it from the pieces that appear here. Neutral though it may have been in the years proceeding the German invasion of Poland, it soon adopted a very different stance. In that regard, it was fortunate in having correspondents of the calibre of AJ Liebling in France, Molly Panter-Downes in London and Philip Hamburger in Rome, all of whom sent dispatches which not only were of their time but also stand the test of time.

On August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A year later, the magazine gave over an entire issue to John Hersey's 30,000-word account of the bombing and its immediate aftermath. It was, as Ben Yagoda wrote his indispensable history of the New Yorker, "the most influential magazine article in the history of journalism". It was also, one might argue, the end of a more innocent era and with it Ross's vision of an American version of Punch. As he himself was painfully aware, it had gone "heavyweight" and there was no turning back.

This book, however, is a reminder of its in-depth quality. Here, for example, among an embarrassment of riches, are exemplary profiles of Duke Ellington and Thomas Mann, reviews by George Orwell (Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter), Edmund Wilson (Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age Of Reason) and Lionel Trilling on Nineteen Eighty-Four, poems by Auden and MacNeice and Elizabeth Bishop, short stories by Vladimir Nabokov, Carson McCulllers and Shirley Jackson.

For all that, it is an uneven collection. The music criticism is lame and the few pages devoted to fashion read raggedly. The movies, among them Citizen Kane and The Grapes Of Wrath, are not much better served; it was not until Pauline Kael came along that the New Yorker found a writer worthy of it. In compensation, however, New York (which of late the New Yorker has been less than vigilant in covering) has the great Joseph Mitchell as its memorialist, in a hymn to McSorley's Old Ale House. But where are the cartoonists, without whom the New Yorker would lose much of its distinction? Where are Peter Arno and Charles Addams? Where, for that matter, as poet, short story writer, essayist or cartoonist, is the incomparable, evergreen James Thurber?

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