What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, March 13, 2015

March 9, 2015 Issue

Of the nine mustaches mentioned in John McPhee’s delightful "Frame of Reference," in this week’s issue, my favorite is Norton Townshend Dodge’s “grand odobene mustache,” from McPhee’s great "The Ransom of Russian Art" (The New Yorker, October 17, 1994). I looked it up - “odobene” means walrus-like. This description makes me smile because it conveys the exact look of Dodge’s memorable visage, as shown in the Dudley Reed photo of him that illustrates McPhee’s piece. “Frame of Reference” is the sixth in a series of McPhee pieces called “The Writing Life.” In addition to providing valuable advice on composition (e.g., “You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness”), this series is a powerful mnemonic, triggering pleasurable memories of many of McPhee’s finest works. For example, the mention of Dodge’s “odobene mustache,” in “Frame of Reference,” took me back to “The Ransom of Russian Art,” which I’d first read over twenty years ago, when it appeared in The New Yorker. Paging through the lovely 1994 book version of the same name, with its numerous color plates showing selections from Dodge’s massive Russian art collection, I noted several passages that I’d previously underlined in pencil, including this: “Larger works, he says – his thick eyebrows merging with his mustache – ‘had to go through channels.’”

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