Review of “The 40’s: The Story Of A Decade: The New Yorker,” Edited by Henry Finder and Giles Harvey

tags: book review, The 40s The Story Of A Decade, Henry Finder, Giles Harvey

Mark Weisenmiller is an author/historian/reporter living and working in Florida. Previous employers include United Press International (UPI); Deustche Presse Agentur (DPA); The Economist; Agence France Presse (AFP); Inter Press Service (IPS), and the Xinhua News Service (XNS).

While concrete, finite reasons for publishing this compendium of writings that were first published in The New Yorker during the 1940’s are never presented in this nearly 700 page tome, readers and writers (which means, excepting illiterates, all of us) should relish in finding this “story of a decade” (as the title states) for it’s education and entertainment.

Like a Rorschach test, what a person sees and feels in the overall editorial and emotional grip of this book will depend on what they do for a living and what are their interests. Historians will revel in writer John Hersey’s story entitled “Survival” (which tells the story of young U.S. Navy Lieutenant—and later, President of the United States—John F. Kennedy and his and his shipmates struggle to survive when their boat, PT 109, was sliced in two by a gargantuan and passing Japanese battleship during World War Two) or “Hiroshima” (which tells the story of the atomic bombing of that city by the Americans during the closing days of the war through the prism of six different people. “Hiroshima” comprised all of the magazine’s editorial content for its August 31, 1946 issue and was subsequently published as a book).

Journalists will enjoy Lillian Ross’s “Come In, Lassie !” (about the post Second World War “Red Scare” in the U.S. in general and Hollywood in particular) or Richard H. Rovere’s “Letter From A Campaign Train” (in which the writer reports from the Presidential election campaign trains of incumbent Harry S. Truman and also challenger Thomas E. Dewey). Those who admire well written profiles of celebrities will flock to “The Hot Bach,” by Richard O. Boyer, which is a character sketch of jazz great Duke Ellington. Admirers of classic movies will long remember film critic David Lardner’s “Blood and Premiums,” which was his film review of the classic 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity.”

This partial chronicling of but some of the many, many stories in “The 40’s: The Story Of A Decade” presents an opportunity to briefly mention some subjects and stories by famous New Yorker writers which are not in this compendium. There is nothing substantial about athletics or economics; there is nothing from writer Berton Roueche (a talented scribe from St. Louis who was so gifted about writing about the many fields of medicine that the magazine’s section known as “Annals of Medicine” was created, more or less, for his sole benefit); there is nothing from that master humorist Peter De Vries; there is nothing from that master of the short story, J. D. Salinger (specifically the classic short story of his known as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” although it is noted that the story was “not available for inclusion here”). Most surprising, there is nothing from Roger Angell, who began as a writing contributor to The New Yorker in the 1940’s and later became, and stayed in the position for many years, of Fiction Editor. Angell is most famous for covering baseball for the magazine and last year, in due accordance for said work, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Angell, who is now in his mid 90’s, is the stepson of E.B. White, a writer who was, for decades, the literary beacon light of The New Yorker. Writers new to writing for the magazine admired White for his dazzling variety of pieces; among them were fictional stories, poetry, essays (for years he was the chief contributor to the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section), reportage, writing about children’s books (such as “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan”). He was also an editor and painter (a painting of his, depicting a sea-horse, was the cover of the April 23, 1932 issue). The co-editors of the book have wisely decided to have examples of White’s New Yorker writings, as the first contribution to each section of the tome. Such writings help to set an appropriate literary tone for each section. The seven parts of the book are entitled, in order, The War: American Scenes; Postwar; Character Studies (which is comprised of profiles of famous people; for many decades, the “Profile” section of the magazine was the most popular with readers); The Critics (which is sub-divided into Books and The Current Cinema; The Theatre; Art and Architecture; Musical Events; and Feminine Fashions); Poetry, and finally Fiction.

This book’s chief problem is the fact that stories about, and from the time period of, the Second World War—which, one could argue, was both the most important and pivotal historical event of the 20th century—come in its first section. Question: If one is depicting THE event of the 20th century in a book’s first chapter or section, then how does one continue to maintain such a high level of writing for the book’s next 550 plus pages? Answer: Fortunately, for this book, the co-editors had hundreds of pieces of interesting writing to choose from, and so they are able to keep a reader’s interest—for the most part. In some sections, the reader’s mind can wander from concentrating on what he or she is reading. Some of the stories, for example, in the Feminine Fashions section sub-section failed to quicken this reader’s pulse.

Yet what literary treasures this book holds! We have George Orwell’s book review of Graham Greene’s novel “The Heart of The Matter” (in which Orwell shows his distrust of Greene’s excessive Roman Catholicism in the book, so much so that the title of Orwell’s review is “The Sanctified Sinner”). We have two stories by Dame Rebecca West. One of the stories is about her covering a lynching trial in Greenville, South Carolina; the other a long report about the postwar Nuremberg, Germany trials of Nazi Party leaders. Both pieces are flawless. There is Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful “The Old House at Home,” which profiles New York’s (then) most famous bar—that is, McSorley’s Old Ale House. A.J. Liebling—who usually wrote about boxing, and culinary matters for the magazine—is represented by his coverage of the D-Day invasion of 1944. Edmund Wilson—who, for approximately 25 years, was The New Yorker’s chief book critic—has his humorous and salient essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” in the book.

Considering that Broadway has long been the world’s most predominant place to present plays, “The Theatre” subsection is surprisingly thin. There are only three reviews of plays, all written by Wolcott Gibbs, but all three plays are considered classics of their respective genres: “The Iceman Cometh,” “Death of A Salesman,” and “South Pacific.” Part Six, Poetry, has 19 poems, but there is nothing from long-time New Yorker writing contributors John Updike or Phyllis McGinley. On the positive side, there is the humorous “What I Know About Life” by Ogden Nash and, especially, the deep and haunting “Aspects of Robinson” by Weldon Kees.

Ultimately, The New Yorker is known, nationally and internationally, mostly for it’s publication of top-notch cartoons and fiction. Strangely, in a nearly 700 page book, there are no cartoons from such famous New Yorker artists as Charles Addams or Saul Steinberg. However, in the last section of the book, there is much fine fiction. There are short stories from Carson McCullers, John O’Hara (who had over 200 of his short stories published in The New Yorker; this is, by far, the record for writers), John Cheever (whose short story, “The Enormous Radio,” is republished here. This was one of those rare pieces of writing that New Yorker editors immediately recognized as masterful; reportedly, editor Harold Ross said about it: “It will turn out to be a memorable one, or I am a fish”). The book also includes Jessamyn West (the Quaker writer whose best known book, “Friendly Persuasion,” was turned into a movie of the same title), and Shirley Jackson’s classic of horror, “The Lottery.”

The 40’s: The Story Of A Decade is one of those rare non-fiction books that can be read simultaneously for education and entertainment. Books—whether they be fiction or non-fiction, or come in electronic book, hardback, or paperback format—are supposed to provide such services. Most do not; This one does so in, to use an old Broadway publicists word, boffo style.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Weisenmiller All Rights Reserved

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