December 06, 2005

First Browse of the New Yorker

The COMPLETE NEW YORKER doesn’t have a Back button, a frustrating omission. There are indirect ways you can retrace a search, but they’re, well, less direct: you can return to search the archive from scratch, or rehit the keywords of something previously searched, but you can’t just go back to the thing you were doing immediately before. And results don’t come up by title, only by author, date, and department. This isn’t a problem if you already know the title of what you’re looking for, such as “The Country Husband” by John Cheever, but if you’re looking for a story by Mavis Gallant from some time in the Sixties that you only remember vaguely by subject, you might have to click every Mavis Gallant story from the Sixties before you find it.

What I searched for first was what probably ninety percent of all readers will search for first: Salinger. And the first story I searched for was the one that has meant most to me in the past, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” I kept putting in the title keywords and nothing came up. Was I spelling it wrong? Was the hyphen confusing the program? I kept trying alternate methods until finally I froze the software and had to force quit a couple of times. Then, using other research methods, I uncovered the problem: “De Daumier-Smith” was the only Salinger story The NEW YORKER rejected after he started publishing with them.

Okay, on to “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” It came up easily – April 8, 1950 is the issue – and it was a queasy kind of fun to see the corny cartoons that ran amidst its text, and the Phyllis McGinley poem about literary prizes. Queasy, because the ephemeral associations threatened to tarnish the permanence of the literature. “For Esme” held up, last night, as a superb piece of writing, original in concept and design, and deeply felt in its portrayal of a shell-shocked D-Day veteran (which Salinger was in real life), although its most memorable line is a quotation from Dostoevsky. “The Laughing Man” had been treated less well by time: overloaded with dated cuteness. And “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” exuded a creepy pedophilia which you were supposed to be too sophisticated to care about back then; and the suicide ending, which seemed merely arbitrary and out of character before, now seemed monstrously callous on the part of both character and author. The lasting image left by the story – but not described in it – is of a young bride – a “girl” – on her honeymoon, being awakened by the sound of a gunshot next to her in bed, with her groom’s brains and blood spattered all over her.

I think this online NEW YORKER will be best for browsing the lighter features, the Talk of the Town pieces and reviews and cartoons and ads and fillers. These things, which may have seemed like throwaways at the time, are now preserved in virtual amber and give off the scent of an earlier world. In contrast, the more ambitious works, the long articles and book serializations, may show the cracks and gaps and discolorations of fossils. Plus, the onscreen format is visually cumbersome to read, because you have to keep moving up and down the three-column page by clicking buttons. If you want to read a whole story or article straight through, the best procedure is to print it: this gives you a beautiful photocopy of the original magazine page, yellowed by age. If the thing you want to print is very long – if you want to read THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth – you’re better off taking the book out of the library (an admission THE NEW YORKER itself makes in the introductory materials).

Still, there’s a world to be explored in there – what was in the issue that was published the week of my birth? I’m guessing an O’Hara story, an Arno cartoon, a Talk piece about the arrival of spring – and endless reminders of how things have changed. A cartoon shows two refined ladies passing the night depository of a bank and wondering, “Shouldn’t they have a night withdrawal too?” The days before ATMs.

And this is the little piece of filler at the bottom of page 36 from April 8, 1950, after the J. D. Salinger byline. It’s one of those silly journalistic misstatements that the magazine likes to mock:

[from the Waterbury (Conn.) American]
Two priests at the Hartford diocese will celebrate their golden wedding jubilees within the next four days.

Little did they know.