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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Moralistic Mendelson - Part I

Edward Mendelson, in his Moral Agents (2015), claims that the “New Yorker style” of the 1940s and 50s had “no moral content.” He says,

The “New Yorker style” got its name from the stories that appeared there weekly, written by John O’Hara and John Cheever, later by J. D. Salinger, John Updike, and scores of others, some famous, many forgotten. It flourished in American soil because it fed on American myths of detachment as the purest mode of existence and thinking. What distinguished it from the detachment of Huck Finn and Lambert Strether was that it had no moral content, no impulse to escape corrupt entanglements. Its detachment was aesthetic: it treated the world as interesting place to write about in a tone of calm, cool observation.

I’m not sure what stories Mendelson has in mind when he makes this statement. He mentions O’Hara, Cheever, Salinger, and Updike. Their styles differ from each other, of course. But their stories are all deeply felt. Look at the way Salinger empathizes with the children in his stories. You’d hardly call that detachment. Were they moralists? Cheever, in the Preface to his The Stories of John Cheever (1978), wrote, “The constants that I look for in this sometimes dated paraphernalia are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being.” Updike explored sexual morality in his Maple stories (e.g., “Sublimating,” “Separating,” “Eros Rampant,” “Your Lover Just Called”). But he pursued other interests, too. “Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear – these are the worthy, inevitable subjects,” he says in the Introduction to his The Early Stories, 1953-1975. All four writers probed the nature of human character. So, yes, I would say they are moralists. But more to the point is that they’re artists – four of the greatest. It’s their art that interests me. O’Hara’s dialogue, Salinger’s narrative, Updike’s description, Cheever’s poetics - how did they do it? Critics who can illuminate their technique are the critics I want to read. Mendelson’s focus on “moral content” is too narrow. Without style, moral content is just a sermon.

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