A great collection

by | Jul 14, 2014 | Book Reviews

The 40s: The Story of a Decade
The New Yorker
Random House, 2014
696 pages, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-679-64479-8

When Harold Ross, a hard-drinking, card-playing, heavy smoker, conceived of The New Yorker his plan was to create a Manhattan-centered “fifteen-cent comic paper,” somewhat modeled after the British Punch and the German satirical Simplicissimus. First published in 1925, The New Yorker didn’t strive to be “important” or political. According to David Remnick, present editor, Ross “…managed to hire James Thurber and E.B. White, Janet Flanner, and Lillian Ross, Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. He could not afford to pay Hemingway’s short-story rates, and so… he went about discovering John O’Hara, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, and Shirley Jackson…” among others.

It is generally accepted that World War II “made” The New Yorker. Writers such as A.J. Liebling were embedded (although the word “embedded” as applied currently was not yet in use) with troops in landing craft approaching the beaches of Normandy and women were hired to provide brilliant reporting, notably the likes of Mollie Panter-Downes writing from London on the Blitz.

As a rising high school senior in the summer of 1946, I was alternatively serving ice-cream cones at Tomkins Dairy stand in Asbury Park, N. J. (three scoops for a nickel), or making change on the boardwalk at the Pokerino concession, or jerking sodas at a drug store soda fountain whose name (after 68 years) escapes me. One day, instead of a tip, someone handed me a copy of a magazine filled with great cartoons, an interesting profile, and reviews of Broadway shows, movies, art shows and restaurants. One reading and I was hooked. By late August I was astonished to pick up a copy of the magazine with nothing in it but John Hersey’s newest book, Hiroshima. The New Yorker had irreversibly changed. I bought my first subscription as a college freshman in 1947. It was $7 for a 52-week subscription. $7 was what I paid for a week’s room rent at Syracuse University, therefore, not a trivial sum. The New Yorker had a liberal stance, highly appropriate for a young college student in the “ban the bomb” era.

If you like your history served up through primary sources who happen to be great writers, The 40s: The Story of a Decade is ideal. Rebecca West takes us to Nuremburg; Janet Flanner, reminds us of General Eisenhower’s letter to field commanders before the Normandy invasion that began:

Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe…Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.

Two weeks after Normandy the Monuments Men, recently celebrated in a film of the same title, “were turned loose to hitchhike towards their goal, the salvation of art.”

The decade that began shakily with a nation still suffering the effects of The Great Depression, that saw more than nine million men and women in uniform, and concluded with millions of veterans utilizing the G. I. Bill to seed the equally great boom of the 1950’s, is all there in The 40s. Character studies of such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt; Lionel Trilling reviewing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty- Four; movie reviews of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Bogart and Bergman’s Casablanca, and Ray Milland’s The Lost Weekend, are all there. Not to mention Walcott Gibbs on Broadway’s Death of a Salesman and South Pacific.

This wonderful recording of a decade, viewed through new classical music and jazz, feminine fashions, poetry, art, architecture and fiction is not to be missed by the nostalgia seekers of my generation nor younger students of 20th century history. The New Yorker, having published a massive collection of its cartoons just a few years ago (all available electronically), it is perhaps understandable that this volume includes no cartoons, understandable but regrettable, serving as they do as a marvelous foil to the prose. To carry the thought a step further, one supposes that the uniquely identifiable New Yorker style of advertisements of the time would similarly enhance the historicity of the work. But to be fair, The 40s is what it is: A collection of writing, never less than good, generally excellent, and occasionally truly great.