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The most embarrassing moment of my life was when I sent a pro-Nixon poem to The New Yorker.

This was not necessarily my idea.  I had written the said poem, for reasons long lost in the mists of time, when I was about thirteen.  I was a good little Republican at that point who really hadn't given all that much thought to politics, and like my parents, I was inclined to pooh-pooh the idea that a President, especially one who'd been re-elected in a landslide that defined the word “epic,” had been evil enough, or stupid enough, to burglarize his opponent's headquarters.  The Democrats were spoilsports who refused to accept the Will of the People across the length and breadth of this great land (except in that strange little place called Massachusetts), and what better way to show my support for the man who'd opened China and sworn he'd get us out of Vietnam than to write a poem?

That I had an assignment due for my middle school English class was mere coincidence.

Regardless of why I wrote it, the fact remains that I did.  My teacher liked it well enough to give me an A (go, me!), and my parents, uncles, and aunt were lavish with their praise.  I was clearly a talented and genius-level child, the pride of my family, and politically so very astute, writing a clever commentary on current events.  That the poem, a meandering piece of free verse allegedly chronicling the opinions of Abraham Lincoln, was dignified by the word "jejeune" did not seem to have occurred to anyone, including my usually astute mother.  

Regardless, my family decided that the only thing to do with this precocious masterpiece was get it published.  Since my middle school did not have a literary magazine, that meant professional publication.  And since Betty had recently started subscribing to The New Yorker, why not strew caution to the winds and send my poem along?  If nothing else, it would put the literary world on notice that a tenth muse was springing up in Western Pennsylvania, fresh and eager and loaded for bear!

And so it was that my poem, revised (and, truth to tell, at least partially rewritten when I had a massive attack of honesty writer's block the night before the blasted thing was due) by Mum, typed by Betty, and graced with a fawning, hand-written cover letter in my very own C- penmanship, was duly sent off to one of the great bastions of American literary culture.  I had the brains to include a self-addressed envelope in case they didn't need my brilliant production, but I seriously expected it to come back with a large check and a laudatory letter about what a wonderful little writer I was.

I think you've already guessed what happened next.

The form rejection letter included a little penciled comment at the bottom thanking me for reading and liking The New Yorker, which was a lot more than my poem deserved.  I was disappointed for a few minutes, then shoved the whole mess into a drawer and went back to reading the James Blish Star Trek adaptation I was engrossed in.   I then proceeded to forget all about it until I found it in a drawer when going through Betty's effects after her death in 2006.

No, I am not going to reproduce it here.  Like my hernia scar, the separation agreement from my divorce, and the nice color photos of my colonoscopy that some thoughtful nurse shoved into my hands when I was still reeling from anesthesia, this one ain't seeing the light of day.  I'm not throwing it out - that's for whatever poor schlemiel is my literary executor to do, preferably immediately and with extreme prejudice after the committal service - since every writer needs her very own equivalent of a slave standing behind her in the chariot muttering, "Remember, thou art but mortal" as the adoring multitudes fling rose petals and Sicilian dancing boys in her general direction, but trust me on this one, boys and girls:

It reeks.

Enough time has passed that it's virtually certain no one currently working for The New Yorker remembers the day a barely pubescent Pittsburgher submitted a lousy poem about Tricky Dick.  Words fail to describe how happy I am about this on the off-chance that I do get something into the magazine (hey, it's possible - I could marry rich and be profiled someday!  Sicilian dancing boys might camp in my driveway!   Tim LaHaye could win the Nobel Prize for Literature!), but just because my juvenilia left no mark doesn't mean that The New Yorker has no institutional memory.  Far from it.  Unique among major American magazines, what began as an arch little publication for Bright Young Thing has maintained a remarkably consistent tone, with an editorial staff that not only acted like a family, occasionally was a family.

The New Yorker began in 1925 when Harold Ross and his first wife, Jane Grant, decided that America needed a sophisticated, high-class humor magazine that would appeal to readers who were not necessarily amused by the broad japes in Judge or the old version of Life.  Advertised as scorning the typical appeal to “the lady from Dubuque” who was the target of so much American literature of the time, the new magazine was unabashedly geared not to families in the heartland, but to the educated, intelligent, driven population of the East Coast.  Cornball humor and conservative values were thrown aside in favor of cartoons about little kids rejecting their vegetables and columns about New York's supper clubs by table-hopper Lois Long (who wrote under the name "Lipstick" at a time when many still held that "paint" was a mark of immorality).  There was even a section at the beginning of every single issue called "The Talk of the Town," and that town wasn't Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, or Pekin, North Dakota.  It was huge, filthy, fast-talking, hard-living New York, home to gangsters and scantily clad chorines and illicit alcohol and everything that was Wrong With America.

That America was increasingly looking, and talking, and behaving a lot more like what was seen in The New Yorker than anything that would appeal to the genteel, refined, Sunday School teaching, tea room patronizing lady from Dubuque, only enhanced the new magazine's appeal.  After a few years of struggle, Ross had assembled a roster of writers and cartoonists that could make a fair claim to representing some of the very best that America had to offer:  E.B. White, James Thurber, Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Mollie Panter-Downes, Geoffrey Hellman, Alexander Woollcott, Charles Addams, and on and on and on.  Witty, well-educated, and gifted, these writers and artists made the huge, filthy, crowded city seem like a place where painting and theater and dance and humor all the lively arts were not simply amusements for the elite, but as vital to the Five Boroughs as air and water and food.  The New York of Harold Ross's brainchild looked like fun despite the filth and the crowds, and what more could a young person ask?

Most important of all, Ross had the good sense to hire one of the most brilliant editors in American literary history.  Katherine Sergeant Angell (later White), a smart, sophisticated Bryn Mawr graduate, started out as part-time slush pile reader in 1925 and soon proved indispensable as writer and fiction editor.  She's been called "the fountain and shrine of The New Yorker" for her work in discovering and developing writers, and her thirty-five year career at the helm did much to set the magazine's tone and reputation for excellence.  Writers who broke in during her tenure included luminaries such as  Vladimir Nabokov (who sent her the first drafts of Lolita), John O'Hara, Clarence Day, John Updike, Marianne Moore, Jean Stafford, Ogden Nash and John Cheever, and her ability to work with the most difficult authors allowed her to take on the likes of Alexander Woollcott (who once met her at the door in the nude) and John O'Hara (who sobered up before each appointment out of respect).

If that weren't enough, Angell's son Roger and second husband, E.B. White (known as "Andy" since his college days), also wrote for The New Yorker.  She encouraged the former and defended the latter when children's librarian Ann Carroll Moore attempted to have Stuart Little suppressed, and in an age when most women stayed home, she continued to write and edit even after moving to Brooklin, Maine, at the behest of her beloved Andy.

The glorious mid-century days were past, or passing, by the time Betty started her subscription to The New Yorker; Harold Ross had died in the 1950s during heart surgery, Katherine White was struggling with health problems, and Lipstick had retired.  William Shawn, a less flamboyant journalist whose quirks had been skewered by Tom Wolfe's inaccurate but amusing “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”, was the editor, and if the result was less sparkling and more serious, it still featured beauties like Audax Minor's horse racing column, Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt's biting movie reviews, and Sylvia Townsend Warner's lovely short stories.  And there were long, brilliant examples of journalism like C.D.B. Bryan's magnificent "Friendly Fire," a series of articles about an ordinary family trying to learn what had happened to their son in Vietnam, and Frances FitzGerald's terrifying "A Disciplined, Charging Army," a prescient dissection of Jerry Falwell's megachurch published just as the Moral Majority was beginning its long, destructive attack on American life and culture.

Is it any wonder I read every issue before my aunt could get her hands on The New Yorker?  That I flipped through the pages looking for the best cartoons?  That I came to cherish the reviews, the film and concert listings, even the column fillers (still edited and written by E.B. White, and then by Roger Angell)?  

I no longer subscribe to The New Yorker; it's an expensive publication, and I still shudder to think of the Tina Brown days even though she's been gone for years.  But I'm starting to read it again, and little wonder; the articles are still top-notch, the cartoons are still funny, and the sensibility is still as urban, sophisticated, and witty as a George Gershwin tone poem.  And there are moments when The New Yorker rises above merely reflecting or commenting on culture to shape it, whether in the form of Jeffrey Toobin's articles on the law, or cover art that mourns the dead or mocks the stupidity of politics.

Harold Ross and Katherine White might not necessarily approve of everything that appears in the pages of the magazine they served so long and so well, but I can't help but think that they'd be proud that The New Yorker is still around, still vital, and still nurturing talent while still managing to annoy those who think that the Gilded Age sensibilities of the lady from Dubuque should apply to the entire country.

Is it any wonder I fell in love with the idea of living in a great city?  And that I moved to Boston after college when it became clear that I wouldn't be allowed to go to New York itself?  Can you blame me for loving the magazine, even if my sole attempt to join The New Yorker family was a rotten poem about a rotten politician?


What magazines have you loved, my friends?  Sports Illustrated?  The Atlantic?  Highlights?  The Reader's Digest?  Utne Reader?  Maybe even The New Yorker itself?  Tonight is for celebration, not mockery, so come and share....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jun 08, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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