Saturday Feb. 21, 2015

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Mountain Day

With one dear friend we go up the highest mountain
thousands of feet into the birdless snow
and listen to our breaths in the still air
for a long time beside the observatories
later we stretch out on the dark crumbled
lava slope looking
west at the sun yellowing the clouds below
then go down past the wild cows to the cabin
getting there just before sunset
and eat by the fire laughing at what we have
forgotten to bring
afterward we come out and lie
braided together looking up
at Cassiopeia over the foothill.

“Mountain Day” by W.S. Merwin from Collected Poems: 1952-1993. © The Library of America, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Anaïs Nin (books by this author), born in Neuilly, France (1903), the daughter of a Spanish composer and Danish-Cuban classically trained singer. She studied psychoanalysis with Otto Rank, and was a patient of Carl Jung at one time. She wrote in literary obscurity for most of her life, until her diaries began to be published in 1966. She began writing them at age 11 and continued for more than 60 years, and they include accounts of her passionate love affair with Henry Miller in Paris.

It’s the birthday of W.H. Auden (books by this author), born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England (1907), the son of a physician and a nurse. He went to Christ Church, Oxford, on a biology scholarship. He switched to English literature, and met young poets like Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, who became his lifelong friends. Just before the start of World War II, he immigrated to the United States to teach English. He published more than 400 poems, essays, plays, and opera libretti.

It’s the birthday of David Foster Wallace (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1962). He wrote Infinite Jest (1996), which was 1,079 pages long with 388 footnotes. It was dense and intellectual, a futurist novel about addiction, tennis, and separatist groups, among many other subjects. But it was a best-seller, and it propelled Wallace into the literary spotlight. He was considered one of the country’s most promising young novelists. He published a couple of books of short stories, and then he committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. He was working on a novel at the time of his death, about a third of the way done. It’s a novel about boredom titled The Pale King, which was published in 2011.

He said: “Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. [...] The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years.”

It was on this day in 1925 that the first edition of The New Yorker magazine was published. It was founded by journalist and editor Harold Ross, who had a vision for a witty, cosmopolitan magazine. He wrote: “Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. [...] The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque. It will not be concerned in what she is thinking about.” Ross eventually convinced Raoul Fleischmann, the heir to Fleischmann yeast, to support the magazine as a financial backer. Fleischmann said of Ross: “I wasn’t at all impressed with Ross’ knowledge of publishing.” For his part, Ross complained, “The major owner of The New Yorker is a fool and [...] the venture therefore is built on quicksand.” Despite their difficult relationship, Fleischmann continued to back the magazine until his death.

The first issue had a cover drawn by Rea Irvin, depicting a dandy in a top hat looking at a butterfly through a monocle. Irvin assumed that The New Yorker would fold after a few issues, but he eventually drew 169 covers for the magazine and created its famous typeface. The first issue included a parody of a future 1928 newsroom, a sarcastic advertisement about magazine contests, a piece called “The Story of Manhattankind” by an author identified as “Sawdust,” and the column Of All Things, in which Ross wrote: “The New Yorker asks consideration for its first number. It recognizes certain shortcomings and realizes that it is impossible for a magazine fully to establish its character in one number.”

In the early issues, the organization and content were mediocre. Advertisers stayed away, which forced Ross to publish more bad material to fill space that should have been for ads. Only the art was successful from the beginning. Ross complained to a friend: “Everybody talks of The New Yorker’s art, that is, its illustrations, and it has been described as the best magazine in the world for a person who can not read.”

Ross famously yelled once in his office: “I’ll hire anybody!” In the summer of 1925, six months after the magazine was founded, Ross hired Katharine Angell (later Katharine White) as a manuscript reader. Within a few months, she was involved in all aspects of the magazine, and she became its literary editor. She pushed for serious poetry and brought on excellent writers, despite the terrible pay — Ross believed that if he paid his writers too well, they would lose their incentive to work. Together, Ross and Angell made the literary side of The New Yorker as successful as its art. In the first few years, they hired James Thurber, John O’Hara, Wolcott Gibbs, and E.B. White (he and Angell were married a couple of years later). E.B. White described the odd partnership of Ross and Angell: “He was a big, blundering, loud man, clumsy and tempestuous. She was quiet, calm. I may be biased, but I don’t think The New Yorker would have survived if Kay hadn’t showed up there.”

The first issue of The New Yorker sold 15,000 copies, but the numbers dropped steadily, and by August circulation was down to 2,700. Ross and Fleischmann agreed to call it quits, but couldn’t follow through, and Fleischmann gave even more money. The turning point came with the Thanksgiving 1925 edition, which contained a story called “Why We Go to Cabarets: A Post-Débutante Explains,” by a young socialite named Ellin Mackay, who wrote her essay to explain why young women like herself were choosing cabarets over private parties. She wrote: “At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly trying to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. [...] What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.” Mackay wrote the article for free, and it was syndicated on the front page of The New York Times. For the first time, The New Yorker sold out on newsstands.

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