Tuesday, December 20, 2011

`The Tug and Its Barges Will Sink With Us'

In the Dec. 27, 1941, issue of The New Yorker – published less than three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the issue on the newsstands Christmas Day – appears a “Talk of the Town” piece, a feature customarily breezy, feuilleton-like and as was the magazine’s custom, printed anonymously. The author was Wolcott Gibbs, for more than thirty years one of the magazine’s reliable warhorses. The piece appears in Backward Ran Sentences (Bloomsbury, 2011), a generous selection of Gibbs’ work edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Gibbs starts his thirty-line “casual” with characteristic (of the magazine, of Gibbs) indirection:

“Christmas, of course, is an anachronism in New York. It belongs to non-converted brownstone houses and gaslights and streets banked high with snow, to a day when there were still suburbs on Manhattan Island. The perpendicular city has no place for it.”

The tone is familiar, nostalgia vying politely with au courant fashion, a muted protest against modernity. Only slowly does the author’s true subject become apparent. Not once is Hitler mentioned, nor the impending fall of the Philippines and Indochina to the Japanese, yet the war suffuses each sentence like incense at High Mass. Gibbs, who loved Long Island and lived for years on Fire Island, quietly echoes Fitzgerald: “The picturesque past is attached to the thrusting present, like a barge to a tug, moving at a constant interval with it through time.” No preaching, no rabble-rousing, no sentimental appeals. The even tone, never strident, never slips. Gibbs turns on his own metaphor:

“When we try to imagine the times and the people who will look back on the grotesque complexity of New York in 1941 and say Christmas was really Christmas in those simple, far-off times [I have the eerie sense he is speaking here directly to us, not to an abstract “readership”], our mind rejects the whole impossible picture. The terrible unborn who are going to remember us as quaint and cheerful figures in an old daguerreotype are as unthinkable to us as men from Mars [the single false, hackneyed phrase in the piece, despite the then-recent Welles/Wells allusion]. We give them up. In fact, we give up the entire complicated analogy; as far as we’re concerned, the tug and its barges will sink with us. In the final perspective of history, it may well be that you are enjoying a nice, old-fashioned Christmas right here and now. We leave you with this thought, for whatever comfort you may find in it, but it sounds like lunacy to us.”

Always tonally agile, Gibbs mastered many voices. The writer who occasionally rises to near-sublimity was also a gifted parodist, film and theater critic, and “humorist” (a dicey designation). Gibbs begins “The Man and the Myth,” published Dec. 22, 1928, with a line that made me laugh out loud: “Santa Claus was born in Latvia on May 8, 1831.”

Collecting Gibbs (1902-1958), whose reputation has evaporated, is a welcome act of literary reclamation. Jacques Barzun called him “a man of courage.” He was a contemporary of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell at The New Yorker. They rank among the greatest American writers in any genre. Gibbs is a lesser figure but a reminder of the magazine’s glory years, roughly 1940 through the early nineteen-sixties. He holds up better than such better-known colleagues as Thurber, Benchley, Parker and Perelman. Before Backward Ran Sentences, the only Gibbs I had read was More in Sorrow, the collection he was reading in proofs when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The New Yorker in its most recent incarnation reflects the nation around it – self-absorbed, politically strident, smitten by celebrity, ultimately trivial. Worse, most of it is badly written. Gibbs’ nimbleness and clarity are long gone. The magazine’s tug and barge sank a long time ago.

[Go here to read a review of the Gibbs anthology by one of his literary descendants, Joseph Epstein.]


William A. Sigler said...

Interesting "new" writer, and an interesting topic. I'm sure it's a generational thing but the New Yorker to me has always been standard-issue dentist office reading material, on a par with Highlights for Children -- fodder for hilariously unfunny cartoons and hilariously funny (unbelievably bad) poems. I've read, of course, numerous New Yorker Writers, most notably Cheever and Thurber, out of their contexts (and loved equally the poor Richard Yates, who tried diligently but unsuccessfully for 50 years to place one single story in the New Yorker), but the thought of the magazine as a whole in its golden age is on a par for me with reading the archives of the Southern Literary Messenger (which no doubt is also still being published somewhere).

The idea of taking a staff writer out of that context many years afterwards, as Epstein notes, is a bit dizzying. The Christmas 1941 quote is a particularly telling case in point. On the one hand it shows itself as a precurser to the arch irony toward events that is de rigeur among the hyper-hip, but tinged with a rare acknowlegement of irony's failure (the failure is better known today as "rehab"). On the other hand, it is completely wrong about the future -- we want nothing more than to know what Christmas 1941 was like on the home front, especially how, as in wartime everywhere, the normal is enforced as a way of coping.

This postcard from the past brings up all sorts of interesting questions of writers in the past, future and present tenses. It always seems be the case that full engagement with the present never lasts, and estrangement always does. Maybe there's room somewhere, as you suggest via Gibbs, for a rapprochment in our thinking.

zmkc said...

I wish it wasn't, but your description of the current trend toward self-absorption and the trivial at the New Yorker is disappointingly true.