T

hree significant American magazines started life in the 1920s. The American Mercury, founded in 1924, met with the greatest initial success, in large part because of the formidable reputations of its editors, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and it soon became the country’s leading journal of opinion. Henry Luce’s Time, launched 10 months earlier, took somewhat longer to find its footing, but its circulation climbed to 175,000 by 1927, and from then on it was the world’s most widely read newsmagazine. The New Yorker was born in 1925, and by its seventh month had a weekly circulation of only 2,700; few thought it likely to survive. But the magazine’s circulation rose to 100,000 at the end of the decade, by which time it had become a magnet for big-ticket advertisers.

Today, Time’s readership is shrinking precipitously, and its cultural reach is all but nonexistent. As for the Mercury, it lost its purchase on American culture long before Mencken resigned as editor in 1933—and in 1951 was bought by an arms manufacturer and turned into an organ of anti-Semitic propaganda before it was blessedly shuttered in 1981.

Not so the New Yorker. It is as widely read and cited today as it was at mid-century, an achievement unrivaled by any other American magazine founded prior to World War II. And the innumerable books dedicated to its inner workings and its history (the latest a collection of articles from the magazine by the 97-year-old Lillian Ross) have only added to its incomparable stature. Alas, none of them goes very far toward explaining why Harold Ross’s unlikely brainchild escaped the trip to the boneyard taken by the American Mercury as well as the Saturday Evening Post and other superannuated magazines whose editors eventually found it impossible to seize the attention of younger readers.

How is it possible that the New Yorker of 2016 remains to this day the readily identifiable descendant of a magazine that came into being in the same year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five cut their first records—and how does it retain so much of its editorial vitality 91 years later?

The Regency dandy who occupied the cover of the inaugural issue was a symbol of Ross’s intention to publish a magazine in whose editorial DNA an attitude of all-purpose enlightened superiority was embedded.

The answer can be found by taking a searching look at what the New Yorker was like under Ross, who edited it with obsessive care throughout the first quarter-century of its life.

One writer who did so early on was the peerless essayist (and Commentary editor) Robert Warshow. His 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker, occasioned by its publication of the issue-length Hiroshima, by John Hersey, and a book that collected E.B. White’s Pollyannish editorials on the necessity for world government, is still the best summary of what the magazine is all about:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking…. History may kill you, it is true, but you have taken the right attitude, you will have been intelligent and humane and suitably melancholy to the end.

Up to a point, this is what Ross had in mind when he declared in his 1924 prospectus that it would be “the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque. . . . it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers.” The Regency dandy who occupied the cover of the inaugural issue—he was later dubbed “Eustace Tilley” and who continues to make an appearance on the anniversary cover each February—was a symbol of Ross’s intention to publish a magazine in whose editorial DNA an attitude of all-purpose enlightened superiority was embedded.

In the early years, the “Talk of the Town” section discreetly condescended to most of the topics about which its anonymous reporters wrote, as did the celebrity “profiles” that in time became Ross’s most imitated innovation. Even his critics were too often given to sniggering at highbrow art whose meanings they failed to comprehend. “I have seldom seen such meagre moonshine stated with such inordinate fuss,” Wolcott Gibbs, a veteran New Yorker editor who doubled as the magazine’s drama critic, wrote of Waiting for Godot.

But Warshow, perceptive though he was, failed to give the magazine sufficient credit for its compensating virtues. An unpolished but intelligent newspaperman with the gift of endless curiosity, Ross structured the New Yorker in such a way as to allow for an enlivening measure of what can only be called paradox. Under his leadership, the magazine was at all times reportage-oriented, but it also found room for a rich assortment of other kinds of material, including the cartoons that remain to this day its most popular feature.

Painstakingly edited but at bottom author-driven, Ross’s New Yorker sought out writers and artists as divergent in style and sensibility as Charles Addams, Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, John O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, Richard Wilbur, and Edmund Wilson, and even though their work was edited heavily, even excessively, their distinctive voices were always left intact. By juxtaposing these voices with the work of such talented staffers as Gibbs, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, and James Thurber, Ross and his editors produced a styleless “house style” that sometimes sounded stiflingly inbred but was just as often excitingly assimilative. Even the magazine’s old-fashioned design contributed unexpectedly to its total effect. It was typographically elegant to a fault, and its visual simplicity made the cartoons and covers stand out all the more strongly by contrast.

Not only would Ross publish anyone whose work struck his fancy, but he was no less willing to run long, fact-packed articles about anything in which he and his writers were interested enough, be it “Old Eight-Eighty,” St. Clair McKelway’s three-part tale of a counterfeiter who specialized in one-dollar bills, or “Extraordinary Exile,” Rebecca West’s indelibly vivid report from the Nuremberg trials:

Though one has read surprising news of Göring for years, he still surprises. He is, above all things, soft. He wears either a German air-force uniform or a light beach suit in the worst of playful taste, and both hang loosely on him, giving him an air of pregnancy. He has thick brown young hair, the coarse, bright skin of an actor who has used grease paint for decades, and the preternaturally deep wrinkles of the drug addict; it adds up to something like the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

It was inevitable that the contents of a weekly like the New Yorker would be uneven in quality, especially the fiction, whose not-infrequent failings W. Somerset Maugham summed up acidly: “Ah, yes, those wonderful New Yorker stories which always end when the hero goes away, but he doesn’t really go away, does he?”

But the magazine was always conceptually consistent—and therein lay the key to its enduring success. Ross hammered out and perfected its overarching concept year by year, gradually assembling a staff that understood his wishes and knew how to execute them imaginatively enough to avoid rigidity. He approached the problem of choosing his fellow editors in much the same way that a shrewd stage director knows that if you pick the right actors, you don’t have to direct them. Most people who write about Ross’s New Yorker naturally emphasize its contributors, but he was always on the lookout for talented editors as well, and over time he found Gibbs, McKelway, William Maxwell, and Katharine White (not a few of whom, Gibbs and Maxwell in particular, were themselves writers of considerable accomplishment). Most important, he hired William Shawn, who succeeded Ross when he died in 1951.

After Warshow’s “E.B. White and the New Yorker,” the most illuminating discussion of the magazine’s idiosyncrasies is Tom Wolfe’s “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead.” Published in 1965, Wolfe’s essay is a flashy evisceration in which he contends, not without reason, that Ross “didn’t want anything in the magazine that was too cerebral, Kantian, or too exuberant, angry, gushing, too ‘arty,’ ‘pretentious,’ or ‘serious.’ ” Shawn’s task, then, was to be “the museum curator, the mummifier, the preserver-in-amber, the smiling embalmer…for Harold Ross’s New Yorker magazine.” And so he was and would continue to be—but not quite in the way that Wolfe supposed.

Shawn, who edited the magazine until 1987, when he was forced into retirement by its new corporate owners, set the pattern for his own successors not by “mummifying” Ross’s New Yorker but by putting a personal stamp on its content without altering its governing approach. He instinctively understood that the magazine was bigger than he was, and so he remained basically loyal to what Ross had wrought, publishing more sophisticated arts criticism and fiction and opening its pages to overt establishment liberalism while taking care not to alienate its loyal subscribers of long standing.

In “Tiny Mummies!” Wolfe contemptuously dismissed the New Yorker under Shawn as “the most successful suburban women’s magazine in the country.” But it is hard to imagine a suburban women’s magazine printing, say, the stories of Donald Barthelme and Saul Bellow, the critical essays of Dwight Macdonald, the dance reviews of Arlene Croce or the four-part “Annals of Crime” series about a small-town mass murder that Truman Capote later brought out in book form as In Cold Blood. Whatever the magazine’s shortcomings in Shawn’s dotage, when he allowed its formulas to grow sclerotic, the New Yorker was for the most part as readable under his stewardship as it had been under Ross in the ’30s and ’40s.

Shawn’s three successors to date—Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick—have approached the job in much the same way that he did, tinkering with the content but leaving the concept intact. To be sure, Brown did all she could to make the New Yorker trendy, while Remnick has given its covers and editorials an unabashedly “progressive” slant. But all of them, even Brown, understood that the editorial pattern established decades earlier by Ross remained effective, up to and including the old-fashioned typographic design.

Eustace Tilley’s grandchild is now a thriving dinosaur, one of the last print-based publications to regularly commission and publish the kinds of pieces that used to be described by journalists as “heavy fact” and more recently have come to be called “long-form reportage.” To look through any recent issue is to run across pieces such as Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties,” a 12,000-word “Annals of Crime” article about a pair of murderous college lovers that would have been no less at home in the magazine a half-century ago. At the same time, the New Yorker has established a profitable beachhead in cyberspace that encompasses both an impressively well-designed website and a Twitter feed that draws its long-form articles to the attention of millennial readers who read them on their iPads.

The latter-day New Yorker also resembles its predecessors in its continuing faith in the “enlightened” attitudes touted by Ross in 1924. Here, though, Remnick’s ideological progressivism has served it less well, for the editorials and political coverage that he favors are uncomprehendingly unsympathetic to those regions of post-Reagan America whose benighted residents question the moral superiority of liberal thought. In this respect, the New Yorker of 2015 suggests nothing so much as “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” the much-reproduced 1976 cover illustration in which Saul Steinberg wittily portrayed Manhattan as the center of the world. This is a point of view that now seems infinitely more provincial than it did four decades ago, when Pauline Kael, then the magazine’s film critic, famously confessed, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” Under Remnick, the New Yorker is written and edited by and for the citizens of Blue America, and increasingly read nowhere else.

Perhaps that was what Harold Ross had in mind when he declared in 1924 that his new magazine would be “avowedly published for a metropolitan audience and thereby will escape an influence which hampers most national publications.” But Ross’s New Yorker came in time to be appreciated by a vastly larger and more diverse readership. To read A.J. Liebling’s “Cross-Channel Trip,” filed from a landing craft in the English Channel on D-Day, is to encounter a kind of journalism in which the urbane attitudes of a Manhattanite pur sang were deprovincialized by patriotism and made relevant to the hopes and fears of a united nation:

A sailor came by and Shorty, one of the men in the gun crew, said to him, “Who was it?” The sailor said, “Rocky and Bill. They’re all tore up. A shell got the winch and ramps and all.” I went forward to the well deck, which was sticky with a mixture of blood and condensed milk. Soldiers had left cases of rations lying all about the ship, and a fragment of the shell that hit the boys had torn into a carton of cans of milk….Rocky was dead beyond possible doubt, somebody told me, but the pharmacist’s mates had given Bill blood plasma and thought he might still be alive. I remembered Bill, a big, baby-faced kid from the District of Columbia, built like a wrestler. He was about twenty, and the other boys used to kid him about a girl he was always writing letters to.

It is hard not to wonder whether it will ever again be possible to print that kind of journalism, whether in the New Yorker or in any other mainstream magazine published in a country whose culture is as cleft as that of the not-so-United States in the 21st century.

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