Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Off Topic: "Backward Ran Sentences..." (Book Review)


"Who's Lucius Beebe, and why should I care what he thinks about Studebakers?"  This
was what I wondered as a teenager when I saw this ad.  Fifty-odd years later, Wolcott
Gibbs supplied the answer: an ass, and not at all.


The full title of this book is Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker, edited by Thomas Vinciguerra.  Gibbs was an editor for and contributor to The New Yorker for 30 years, until his death at the age of 56 in 1958.

The core of Gibbs's writing was irony and satire, sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious.  He had a perfectionist's contempt for everyone, including himself.  The title of the book comes from his profile of Henry Luce and his magazines, principally Time.  Gibbs satirized the Time writing style as "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind."  Luce was mightily offended by an advance copy of the piece.  In a meeting with Harold Ross, the Editor of The New Yorker, he said it was riddled with errors, including (obviously wrong, invented) salaries paid to Time's senior staff.  After a long, fruitless, discussion Ross told Luce "The errors are part of the parody of Time.  The piece will run as it is."

Today, Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, is remembered fondly (if at all), by historians, as not giving Franklin Roosevelt any trouble over his pro-Allied foreign policy in the run-up to World War Two.  Gibbs saw Dewey as an undistinguished, headline-grabbing, District Attorney who wanted desperately to be president but with no clear idea of his own political principles or what he wanted to do with the office.

For me, Gibbs's profiles in The New Yorker are masterpieces.  If the subject amused or bemused him, the humor was gently ironic and fun-poking.  But for the self-important Lucius Beebe, he wielded a chain saw like a scalpel: nothing remained of Beebe's persona but bloody strips of filet.  For Alexander Woollcott (no relation), his typewriter became a sledgehammer.  The only modern writer of nonfiction who compares with Gibbs is Tom Wolfe in his best and long-ago "new journalism" days of the late '60's and early 70's.  And Wolfe comes off a poor second.


Wolcott Gibbs: the best non-fiction satirist America has produced?


It was a long and winding road that led me to reading Gibbs.  As a teenager, I loved The New Yorker cartoons.    (The mother of a friend subscribed.  She was the most sophisticated woman I knew.  She painted.  Well.)  In college I read and loved James Thurber's The Years With Ross, a book-length profile of the magazine's first editor.  Thurber admired Gibbs and included his 31-point internal document, "Theory And Practice Of Editing New Yorker Articles," which I also loved.  In the 1980's I subscribed to The New Yorker for a couple of years and discovered John McFee, one of its best modern-era nonfiction writers.  But I let my subscription lapse because I couldn't finish a 100+ page magazine that came out weekly.

In the early 2000's I re-subscribed, with the same result.  I probably won't subscribe again, even though The New Yorker under its current Editor, David Remnick, is as good or better as it was under  the legendary Ross.  A few years ago I read Ben Yagoda's About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Made, a history of the magazine up to the Remnick era.  Yagoda's book mentioned Vinciguerra's.  I ordered it, and have not been disappointed.  It's easy to see why Gibbs was admired by pros as diverse as Harold Ross, James Thurber, E.B. White, and Catherine White.

I wonder if he could even be published in our own politically-correct, celebrity-worshiping, achingly sincere era.  Gibbs was not a viewer-with-alarm (or concern).  His perspective was contempt for self-important phonies and posers.  To put it in current events terms, Gibbs would have laughed and laughed at Charlie Hebdo.

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