Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, November 25, 2016

November 21, 2016, Issue


This week’s issue contains two scintillating pieces by Jill Lepore: “Esmé in Neverland,” an account of an unsuccessful attempt to make J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” into a movie; and “Wars Within,” part of the superb series “Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America.”

“Esmé in Neverland” begins with Lepore poking around an overgrown eighteenth-century Vermont farm:

Ruins were everywhere. The overgrown labyrinth; stone walls; the foundations of barns; a pine shack, collapsed; abandoned roads; a junk yard at the bottom of a ravine, a little village of bathtubs and glass bottles and old stoves and washbasins; dumped cars, a Plymouth of indiscernible vintage, a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, its hood and trunk popped open, like an upturned deerstalker cap. Grapevines climbed up the mopey branches of a willow. Wasps had lain siege to the barn. There was a wooden rocking horse in the shed, a faded Victorian settee in the attic, and, crammed in between the rafters, resting on plaster made of lime and horsehair, there were corncob husks that had been fashioned into Colonial dolls, folded and tied into the shape of skirted girls.

Note that Karmann Ghia; it appears again at the end of the piece. In between, Lepore tells the fascinating story of how J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” (The New Yorker, April 8, 1950) nearly got made into a movie. The man at the center of this project was a TV director named Peter Tewksbury. Lepore is a consummate rescuer of the dead (see, for example, her superb “Joe Gould’s Teeth,” The New Yorker, July 27, 2015); Tewksbury is one of her great rescues. He was a successful TV director, winning an Emmy in 1959 for “Father Knows Best.” But, as Lepore reports, “Toward the end of the nineteen-sixties, he threw his Emmy out the window of a car and left Hollywood.” He and his wife, Ann Schuyler, moved to a farm in Vermont, then to California, , then to Canada, then back to Vermont, where, Lepore says, “he lived very happily, until his death, in 2003, when he was nearly eighty.” One of the things he did during his Vermont years was make cheese. Lepore writes,

Tewksbury learned to make cheese by driving from dairy to dairy, talking to farmers. He got a job at the Brattleboro Food Co-op as a dishwasher. He worked his way up to the cheese counter. “I know the cheeses and I know the people,” he wrote, in his only book, “The Cheeses of Vermont.” In 2001, a reporter from the Times found him after calling every Tewksbury in the phone book. Tewksbury agreed to meet him at the co-op. He came out from behind the cheese counter with his hat on and sat down. He gave the reporter fifteen minutes, the length of his break. He did not mention J. D. Salinger.

Amazing! Here’s a guy who directed Elvis Presley, Fred MacMurray, and Danny Thomas, had two hit TV series (“Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons”), and happily spent the last thirty years of life working at the cheese counter of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I admire the hell out of him.

As for that Karmann Ghia with “its hood and trunk popped open, like an upturned deerstalker cap” that Lepore finds as she noses around Tewksbury’s old farm, it reappears in the piece’s brilliant final paragraph:

I left the labyrinth and went back to the barn. I laid my spade on the floor. I hung up my axe. I wondered who owned that Karmann Ghia. I crammed a jackknife into my pocket and went back to the woods. I figured I might be able to pry open the glove compartment.

Jill Lepore is among The New Yorker’s very best writers. “Esmé in Neverland” is one of her finest pieces. I enjoyed it immensely.

The other Lepore piece in this week’s issue, “Wars Within,” is part of the “Aftermath” series assessing the implications of Trump’s shocking election. Of the series’ sixteen essays, “Wars Within” comes closest to expressing my view. Lepore writes, “There are many reasons for our troubles. But the deepest reason is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades.” What’s needed, in my opinion, is what Charles Reich advocated in The New Yorker forty-six years ago: a change of consciousness (“The Greening of America,” September 26, 1970). Peter Tewksbury’s life exemplifies such a change.


Other pleasures in this week’s issue: “Goings On About Town” ’s delightfully surreal description of Carolee Schneemann’s “Precarious” (“An associatively structured collage of degraded video footage, focused on the constrained movements of a caged cockatoo, a chained bear, dancing prison inmates, and the artist herself, wearing a blindfold”); Jeremy Liebman’s gorgeous photograph of Yeman Café’s kitchen stove, illustrating Nicolas Niarchos’s sensuous “Tables For Two” (“The liquid is murky but it sparkles with citrusy zest when it hits the tongue”); Colin Stoke’s vivid “Bar Tab” description of the “unironic” goings on at Kettle of Fish (“Choruses of ‘I Love My Green Bay Packers’ and ‘The Bears Still Suck’ bounced off wood-panelled walls like a ball off a receiver’s hand, and homesick Wisconsinites ordered delicious ‘imported’ brats buried in sauerkraut and mustard for five dollars”); Tad Friend’s inspired Talk story “The Undead,” in which cast members of “The Dead, 1904” rehearse for an “immersive re-creation” of the holiday feast in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (“O’Reilly sampled the petits fours and wondered whether the quinoa and Tabasco-flavored ones might not be anachronistic”); Gary Shteyngart’s brilliant “Aftermath” contribution, “Dystopia” (“The jump from Twitter racism to a black church set aflame on a warm Southern night is steady and predictable”); Dan Chiasson’s wonderful “Cross Talk,” a review of Ishion Hutchinson’s “punk-baroque” poetry [“His sound effects are exquisite: the clusters of consonants (hard ‘c’s, then ‘b’s and ‘p’s) and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax, the brilliant coupling of unlike words (‘iceberg-Golgotha’)].

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