James Thurber’s book The Years with Ross (1959), which recounts the early years of the New Yorker under Harold Ross’s stewardship, has much to recommend it. Thurber fans are likely to have read it already but will not object to revisiting a short passage or two, while those yet to be acquainted may be encouraged to seek it out.
The long newspaper experience of the two men, certain of their likes and dislikes, and their high and separate talents as editors formed basis enough for an evening of conversation. They were both great talkers and good listeners, and each wore his best evening vehemence, ornamented with confident conclusions, large generalizations, and dark-blue emphases. . . .
About American novels Mencken could talk endlessly – he thought Tom Sawyer and Babbitt were the best – but Ross was soon lost and floundering. He had said to me, after reading Peter De Vries’ accurate parody of Faulkner, ‘Does Faulkner still write this way?’ The sentence structure and punctuation dismayed him, and he could have got little further in any Faulkner than in Joyce’s Ulysses. He was always wary of his own book department, approaching it with curiosity, respect, and trepidation, the way I once saw a Scottie approach a turtle.
[Link added for readers unsure what a Scottie is.] This formula is so effective that Thurber later recasts it, in a section on Ross learning to drive: He says the editor ‘approached all things mechanical, to reach for a simile, like Henry James approaching Brigitte Bardot. There was awe in it, embarrassment, and helplessness.’
I can’t resist sharing this last gem, on the New Yorker’s relationship with commas – a subject of continuing interest (and occasional vexation) in editing and reading circles:
Through it all went the unending fuss and fret about commas. The New Yorker’s overuse of commas, originating in Ross’s clarification complex, has become notorious the world over among literary people. In Paris, in 1955, an English journalist said to me one night, ‘The biography of Ross should be called The Century of the Comma Man.’ A professor of English somewhere in England wrote me ten years ago a long, itemized complaint about the New Yorker comma, objecting to, among other things, its use after ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’, in which, he said, the comma is implicit. He picked out this sentence in a New Yorker casual of mine: ‘After dinner, the men went into the living-room,’ and he wanted to know why I, or the editors, had put in the comma. I could explain that one all right. I wrote back that this particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.
Now and then, the weedy growth of that punctuation mark, spreading through the magazine like dandelions, was more than I could bear with Christian fortitude. I once sent Ross a few typed lines of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, repunctuated after his exasperating fashion:
She lived, alone, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference, to me.
Previously: James Thurber on writing and rewriting.