- - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

By The New Yorker Magazine
Introduction by David RemnickRandom House, $30, 696 pages

If the 1940s gave the United States its “Greatest Generation,” then it would seem from this collection that it also gave The New Yorker magazine its greatest decade. The nearly 700 pages of this book, the cream of a very rich tub of writing, is packed with marvelous pieces of reportage; reviews of books, movies and plays; essays and pen portraits; articles on architecture and fashion and poetry and short stories by some of the 20th century’s greatest writers. In short, a taste — and a substantial, satisfying one at that — of almost everything that made soldiers and those on the home front rush each week to their copy of the magazine, with the exception of those priceless cartoons, for which it was celebrated.

How thrilling it must have been to read poetry by the likes of W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop and stories by such as Carson McCullers, Vladimir Nabokov and John Cheever. Did those who pounced so eagerly on the magazine recognize Shirley Jackson’s chilling tale “The Lottery” and Conrad Aiken’s finely wrought poem “The Lovers” as the masterpieces they are acknowledged to be now? One thing is certain: They expected literature of high quality each week and they got it.

Then there’s the immediacy of the writing that takes you onto the landing crafts as they approach the beaches under heavy fire. The stiff upper lip of Mollie Panter-Downes, who wrote the eagerly awaited “Letter from London” feature, cannot, for all the cool, calm collectedness of her prose, conceal the enormous effect of suddenly being under enemy bombardment from above. However, it takes an American, one of The New Yorker’s mainstays, the humorist S.N. Behrman to convey the terrors of London’s blacked-out streets more than five years after the war had begun:

“This blackout was inhuman; it was too literal, it couldn’t take a joke Cars passed by — little points of blue light dragging darkness after them but leaving blackness behind. I made it finally, but I had aged .When I got through the swinging door into the lighted lobby, I gasped with relief.”

What is most striking about the contents of “The 40s: The Story of a Decade” is the enormous range, spanning this nation and the world, as global factors in war and in the peace that followed made themselves felt in American society and its culture. Humor mixes with accounts of the Nazi Blitz on London, D-Day and Iwo Jima; Broadway musicals and Braque contrast with John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” Individual contributors span continents, with Rebecca West giving us her special take on justice and injustice at the Nuremberg War Crimes verdicts and at a lynching trial in South Carolina. Her apercus are exceeded only by the lapidary quality of her writing: “We might have been sitting each in a glass case built by history,” she concludes a breathtaking tour d’horizon of racial attitudes on three continents.

West’s marvelous, highly idiosyncratic sweep of ideas, anecdote and analysis is not the only writing here that makes the reader bless the uncommon editor who allowed his writers such latitude to roam where their remarkable minds take us. You might indeed say that The New Yorker in its second full decade was the apotheosis of its founding editor Harold Ross, who would die with the ‘50s barely begun. There would be glories still to come as the 20th century unfolded, but the man who founded the magazine in 1925 gave it his particular stamp, and it was never as profound or as much fun as it was when he was directly guiding it. In the editors he hired, he laid the foundations that would last long after his death. As its current editor, David Remnick, points out in his introduction, its heart and soul continued to be “the men and women he had nurtured, hectored, cajoled, flattered, berated, agitated, mystified, and, yes, inspired.”

More than this, it was his faith — his trust — in them that allowed him to give them so much rope, confident that they would not twist it or hang themselves with it, but rather climb it to great heights of insight and exposition.

I mentioned the lack of those terrific New Yorker cartoons at the beginning of the review, but “The 40s: The Story of a Decade” is minus another component that made people eager to open their issues each week: those peerless ads remarkable for their artistry and general air of sophistication. They are also a time capsule almost as telling in their way as those pieces they made possible. It just goes to show that you can’t have everything even in a volume as stuffed full of goodies as this one.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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