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A Guided Tour Through 'The New Yorker'

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The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

Some copies of the New Yorker.

Thank you all for joining us today! As you may or may not know, The New Yorker is a literary magazine originally envisioned to cater to the intellectual New Yorker. Though it has changed much over the years and its focus has shifted from humour to journalism, it remains a witty and sophisticated magazine that informs, intrigues and entertains. Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, and we will begin our exploration.

The Cover

Our tour through the magazine will begin at its cover. Every cover is a work of art, literally. Aside from the magazine's name at the top, the cover is completely given over to a painting, drawing or similar. These works often involve ironic commentary on life: for example, the 23 January, 2006 cover featured a huge cat on a pillow and covered by a sheet while small humans tumbled about the creases. It was called 'Sleeping With Your Cat'. The New Yorker never mars its cover with blurbs about what is inside. News-stand editions will contain a half-overleaf with the screaming headlines instead. Otherwise, the reader must open the magazine to discover its contents.

Every year, for the second week in February, The New Yorker runs its anniversary cover, a painting of a 19th-Century dandy examining a butterfly through a monocle. The dandy's name is Eustace Tilly, and you will hear of him again. Every once in a while the magazine will run a parody of this cover, in which specific appropriate persons replace Eustace Tilly and the butterfly.

Table of Contents

Now turn the cover and continue past some full-page advertisements, and we come to the table of contents. There is Mr Tilly again, presiding above the logo. Look carefully at this page and you will notice something worth noting: everything in the magazine falls under a header. No article can run unless it runs under a header. Headers are created only for a series of articles on the same topic. Early in the magazine's history this sometimes posed a problem: what to do about a one-time article that didn't fit under anything? However, by now the magazine has created enough headers with vague enough titles that they can fit pretty much anything into the magazine. If you read some of the section titles you will understand: 'Reflections', 'Shouts and Murmurs', 'Onward and Upward with the Arts', 'Letters from [location]'.

The last heading listed in the top grouping will be 'Fiction'. In the early days of the magazine, there were usually three fiction items per issue and they were evenly distributed throughout the magazine, but as stories gave way to facts in terms of social prestige, the magazine likewise replaced some fiction with non-fiction and moved the stories to the back.

The second block in the table of contents is for criticism. Your typical New Yorker is naturally quite interested in following innovation and evolution in culture, and The New Yorker provides it in reviews of books, dance, music, theatre, cinema and even television.

The last block is for poetry; the magazine will contain at least two poems.

You will note the distinctive typeface and elegant layout of the magazine. These were designed by the magazine's first art editor, Rea Irvin, and they have remained classic to this day, though they were modified slightly under Tina Brown's editorship.

Front Sections

Please turn the page and skip 'Contributors', which is introducing (or bragging about) the people who have written what will follow. It is relatively new. The next section is 'The Mail', which is the letters to the editor, of course. It is also a fairly new section and is very selective in what it prints — though 'letter wars' between celebrities have been known to receive special attention. Turn again and you will reach the first major section of the magazine: 'Goings on about Town'. This is a listing of all entertainment occurring in New York City in the coming two weeks, including Broadway productions, theatre, cinema, ballets, operas, nightlife and orchestra performances. This section helps the cultured New Yorker plan his or her week, though it may be irrelevant to readers located elsewhere who aren't quite as interested in the city's happenings. It is interspersed with a sidebar called 'Critic's Notebook', which is exactly what it sounds like.

Talk of the Town

Have you flipped through all the pages of things happening in New York City? Then we've reached 'The Talk of the Town'. A masthead containing our man Eustace Tilly again tops it. 'Talk of the Town' is the heart and soul of the magazine. It begins with a subsection called 'Notes and Comments'. Comments began as satirical editorial on New York City, but never tackled any serious political issues. Through the years, as the funny magazine became less funny, Comments has become more serious, and today it provides downright grave editorial analysis of politics by a prestigious pundit. (In the past, Notes was anonymous, and written by an editorial 'we'.) Following Notes and Comments you will find the rest of 'Talk of the Town': humorous vignettes of events in the city — and these days, out of it as well. 'Talk' also used to be a purely anonymous business, but these days the tireless reporters are allowed a byline at the end of their 'Talk' piece.

'Talk' articles have small titles, and some, you will note, are departments: The Hospitality Department, The Gold Star Department, etc. Back in the magazine's youth, it employed an item known as the newsbreak to fill out columns when the article simply wouldn't stretch. Newsbreaks were news items from other newspapers that were funny because of typos or poor writing. To emphasise the error, the newsbreak editor would file them under 'departments', such as the 'Neatest Trick of the Week' department, or the 'How's That Again?' department. The New Yorker's one-and-only newsbreak editor quit in 1982; since then column fillers have been made irrelevant by computerised layout. The departments, too good to drop, migrated to the 'Talk' section.

When you've finished smiling through 'Talk of the Town' — for The New Yorker is too sophisticated to print anything that will elicit belly laughs or guffaws — turn the page to the financial section. You may rest assured this is another fairly recent section, and it is therefore apportioned only a single side. A magazine such as The New Yorker must have an opinion on the state of the economy, but to treat it at length would be vulgar.

Middle Content

Beginning here, each issue will differ, depending on which sections are running. Read and enjoy — some will be humorous and some will be informative, though all will be well-written and worth reading1. While you peruse the pages, note three things:

  • The dearth of photographs. Until the early 1990s, the magazine never sullied its pages with photography. Every article was illustrated with artwork alone. The New Yorker is cautious about its photography, only including tasteful or artistic photographs and never anything sensational. A proper New Yorker reader is simply too sophisticated to care for sensationalism, you see. Artwork still spots the pages, often portraying concepts that photography, limited to reality as it is, cannot convey.

  • The cartoons. There will be cartoons every few pages. They have no relevance to the article they adjoin. You will never chuckle at a New Yorker cartoon. They are simply not chuckle-at-able. Many rely on non-sequitur punchlines, and some are simply incomprehensible. Seinfeld once ran an episode in which the magazine's editor eventually admits he doesn't understand a cartoon. This is completely possible; the magazine's founder frequently did not understand the cartoons he printed, and the tradition may have endured. That said, the cartoons often satirise human foibles and eccentricities, and you will find them extremely witty, in a quiet, appreciative way.

    Very early on, the magazine would run several full-page cartoons in each issue. This still happens, but with far less frequency.

  • The advertisements. You will note that the vast majority of the advertisements run in columns bordering a spread of two pages. This is so that they do not interfere or distract from the writing, which is the focus of the entire magazine. Back in days of old, the columns flanked each individual page, and a single column of text could run between two thick columns of advertising. Thankfully, the layout has since opened up without compromising the magazine's appearance. The advertisements are also very tasteful, and geared to the urbane reader. You will not find any nude models advertising lingerie in The New Yorker.

  • The profanity, or lack thereof. While The New Yorker does not actually forbid profanity in its pages, it strongly discourages it except when utterly essential, which turns out to be infrequently.

End Sections

The tail end of the magazine is for criticism, and afterwards there may be a final goodbye, in the form of a full-page cartoon or a cartoon caption contest or something of the sort.

Legacy and Influence

Since the magazine began in 1925, it has been setting trends. It pioneered the use of single-line captions in cartoons. Before then, and even in the earliest days of The New Yorker, a caption could consist of a two- or even three-line exchange. It perfected the plotless story, also known as a New Yorker story, which instead focuses on the development of a person or situation. It also blazed a trail in journalism, providing fair and rigorously accurate reporting on important events around the world. It perfected the 'literary journalism' style, informing while entertaining, captivating while educating. It has upheld these traditions and standards, and is considered the foremost journalistic publication in America.

Due to its leadership in these areas, The New Yorker has printed first within its pages many stores and articles that were later anthologised, republished or became otherwise well-known. Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', James Thurber's 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', John Hersey's 'Hiroshima', Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' and Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' are barely a sampling of the works that appeared first beneath Eustace Tilly's monocled scrutiny.

Reading The New Yorker

Now, ladies and gentlemen, you are doubtless wondering how you should read The New Yorker. The answer is quite simply, however you prefer. The more fashion-conscious among you would probably prefer to hear that the typical reader flips through the magazine absorbing all the artwork and cartoons first, before returning to the beginning to read the articles.

Rogues Gallery

Now we have arrived at the gallery of contributors. Since 1926, The New Yorker has attracted — indeed, sometimes discovered — some of the greatest writers and artists of the 20th Century. It continues to be a lamp for the butterflies of the English language. Ladies and gents, you will doubtless recognise many of these names and faces:

  • Charles Addams - Cartoonist. Drew about a macabre family who were the basis for The Addams Family.

  • Woody Allen - Comedian, director, actor, writer and musician. Won a Golden Globe award, an O Henry Award and 14 Academy Award nominations.

  • Hannah Arendt - A political scientist, philosopher and journalist, she is best-remembered for 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' and the concept of 'the banality of evil'.

  • Peter Arno - Cartoonist. His spirited drawings of the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age made The New Yorker a must-read among the socially active.

  • Robert Benchley - Reporter, theatre critic and wit. Upon being assigned to Venice, he telegraphed back from the city saying 'Arrived Venice stop Streets Full of Water stop Please Advise stop'.

  • Sidney Blumenthal - Editorial writer. Blumenthal was heavily involved in the Clinton administration and the uproar over Monica Lewinsky.

  • Truman Capote - Novelist. Famous for In Cold Blood, which used novel-like techniques to describe factual events.

  • Rachel Carson - Environmentalist. Wrote Silent Spring, bringing the dangers of pollution and the use of harmful chemicals to the public's awareness.

  • Roald Dahl - Author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among other children's stories. Also wrote short stories for adults.

  • Joan Didion - Essayist. A left-wing feminist who was both popular and influential in the 1970s.

  • EL Doctorow - A fiction writer, most famous for Ragtime, a history of Jazz and the Mob.

  • Dave Eggers - A journalist and novelist, Eggers' book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made the finals for the Pulitzer Prize. He established McSweeney's publishing house.

  • Jules Feiffer - Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.

  • Jonathan Franzen - A novelist and essay writer. His book The Corrections won the 2001 National Book Award.

  • Wolcott Gibbs - Essayist, editor, theatre critic and playwright.

  • Malcolm Gladwell - Essayist and author of The Tipping Point.

  • Philip Gourevitch - Journalist. Wrote We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the Rwanda genocide.

  • John Hersey - Journalist. Most famous for Hiroshima, a description of the city following the atomic bomb.

  • Seymour Hersh - Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter.

  • Pauline Kael - A no-nonsense film critic. Had very high standards and wasn't afraid to point it out when the emperor had no clothes.

  • Garrison Keillor - A radio comedian/broadcaster/writer. Most of his material is set around Lake Wobegone, a fictional mid-Western American town.

  • Jamaica Kincaid - Author, essayist and creative writing professor at Harvard.

  • Don Marquis - A cartoonist and poet. Authored a literary column featuring Archy, a cockroach who operates the typewriter by headbutting the keys, and Mehitabel, a cat who was Cleopatra in a former life.

  • Steve Martin - Humourist. The man who once remarked that talking about comedy was like dancing about architecture.

  • John McPhee - Along with Thomas Wolfe, McPhee is credited with pioneering the 'new journalism'.

  • Vladimir Nabokov - Wrote Lolita and thus gave an entirely new phrase to the English language, despite being Russian by birth.

  • Ogden Nash - A poet who used intentionally misspelled words to create puns for humorous effect.

  • John O'Hara - Short-story writer, and author of Appointment in Samarra.

  • Dorothy Parker - Short-story writer, drama critic, poet and wit. Famously remarked upon hearing the news that reticent US President Coolidge was dead: 'However can they tell?'

  • SJ Perelman - A humorist and screenwriter best known for his funny sketches in The New Yorker.

  • Philip Roth - Wrote Portnoy's Complaint and many other humorous novels.

  • JD Salinger - Author of Catcher in the Rye. Reclusive and likely to sue anyone who writes anything else about him.

  • Gerald Scarfe - Illustrator and set designer. Did the opening captions for Yes Minister and designed the animation sequences for the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall.

  • Simon Schama - Historian and professor. The man who put the 'story' back into history. Produced a groundbreaking series about England for the BBC.

  • Anne Sexton - Poet. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die.

  • Susan Sontag - Short-story writer and essayist. Known for radical and controversial liberalism.

  • Art Spiegelman - Illustrator and cartoonist. His most famous work is Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the Holocaust in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

  • Saul Steinberg - Illustrator and cartoonist. Most famous for a New Yorker cover titled 'The View from 9th Avenue', depicting New Yorkers' inflated sense of importance.

  • James Thurber - Humorous short-story writer and cartoonist. Famous for 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.

  • John Updike - Short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet.

  • Rogers EM Whitaker - Essayist and railroad guru. Wrote under the pseudonym Frimbo.

  • EB White - Essayist and editorial writer, most famous for Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style.

  • Alexander Woollcott - Theatre and culture critic, renowned for his ascerbic wit and bad temper.

That concludes our guided tour of The New Yorker magazine. Feel free to wander the galleries and examine its long and prestigious history, as well as some of the personalities (some might say characters) who formed it and guided it and helped it become what it is today. Thank you for joining us, and please return someday.

1'Worth reading' is relative and may not reflect your values in reading material. We are not responsible if you find the contents of the New Yorker contrary to your taste.

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