The New Yorker devoted its entire Dec. 3 issue to well-known and not so well-known pieces from its illustrious past.
What might seem a dubious exercise in nostalgia for a vanished golden age was captivating for an old New Yorker reader like me. While I don't look at the magazine's past with that bright a glow - the late era of William Shawn and the Robert Gottlieb/Tina Brown years were dismal - I discern signs of the magazine hitting the shoals.
A Talk of the Town introduction paid homage to magazine founder and legendary editor Harold Ross. Ross would recognize elements of today's magazine, but he would shake his head at the use of photographs, letters to the editors and profanity. He would also find the cartoons unamusing and the short stories unreadable.
The retrospective issue was a treat for longtime New Yorker readers like me who find the magazine lackluster these days. While the recycled pieces were uneven: I didn't care for offerings from James Baldwin, Frank McCourt, Nancy Franklin and Hilton Als, I was captivated by the reprised short stories.
Mexican artist Matias Santoyo's art deco cover from April 1927, showing a Manhattan traffic jam, was relevant to today's city. The issue even ran old cartoons, their humor as musty as 1950s TV sitcoms.
Editor David Remnick returned the magazine to its long-abandoned format of publishing two short stories in each issue, giving lovers of the magazine's classic short story era John Updike's "Snowing in Greenwich Village," from 1956, and Jean Stafford's "Children Are Bored on Sunday," from 1948.
The Thanksiving holiday issue's literary feast also included ho-hum poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke, and Hannah Arendt's diffuse appreciation of W.H. Auden.
Considering that the magazine had a selection of stories from Peter Taylor, J.D. Salinger, John O'Hara, John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Irwin Shaw and so on to choose from, I wondered how Remnick and staff decided upon the Updike and Stafford stories.
Updike's piece, displaying his characteristic felicity of language and blend of romantic nostalgia and sexual desire, was representative of his work, but not one of his major stories. "Snowing in Greenwich Village" was the first of his stories about the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, depicting them as earnest and awkward newlyweds. The story features a witty, energetic and seductive character, Rebecca Cune, but in all the story was relatively lightweight.
In contrast, Stafford's "Children Are Bored on Sunday" is a stunning tour de force. I'd heard of the story through the years, but had never read it.
An interior monologue, the story in which not much happens finds dramatic intensity in the complex thoughts of a young woman named Emma. The story gives Emma's impressions of a Sunday afternoon visit to the Metropolitan Museum. A recent arrival to New York, she also anxiously remembers her attempts to enter the social life of young intellectual sophisticates in the city.
During her visit to the museum, she encounters a young man whom she'd flirted with at one of the parties, a scruffy aesthete named Alfred Eisenburg. She tries to avoid meeting him again, but at the end agrees to go with him for drinks at a nearby bar.
Reading the story, I found myself screaming in my mind to Emma to not accept Eisenburg's invitation. Emma is based on Stafford, and Eisenburg is modeled on her husband, Robert Lowell. The story was published at the beginning of their volatile relationship. Along with increasingly manic behavior, Lowell ruined Stafford's beautiful patrician face by wrecking a car in which she was the passenger.
How apt that the best poem in the issue, Roethke's "In a Dark Time," speaks of the manic-depressive illness that Roethke shared with Lowell.
Early signs of Lowell's affliction first appeared during his marriage with Stafford, who later married famed New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. Lowell went on to a fraught marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick.
Lowell's career overshadowed Stafford's during their lifetimes. While Hardwick has received increasing recognition as critic and novelist, Stafford's reputation had dimmed.
"Children Are Bored on Sunday" is a revelation of Stafford's brilliance, showing that she deserves a re-evaluation as one of our best writers.