Golden Age

For eight decades now, The New Yorker has been the centerpiece of a treasured ritual. The arrival of each weekly issue prompts a personal, individual rite: Some readers savor the gleam of the cover illustration, while others proceed immediately to “The Talk of the Town,” or riffle through the magazine for a quick cartoon fix, or scan the contents for favorite bylines. Scores of readers save their copies of the magazine, amassing a volume of verbal excellence and visual pleasure that has long been defined by a marked and unwavering sensibility. All publications change with the times, but New Yorker admirers are known for fiercely debating even the subtlest shift in design or editorial policy.

With the recent release of The Complete New Yorker, the more or less familiar experience of New Yorker adoration radically changes its form. The archive volume, an austere-looking anthology, belies the dazzling enormity of its contents. Just opposite an elegantly produced selection of signature pages from New Yorkers past are eight DVDs that together contain 4,109 scanned and searchable issues of the magazine—an earthly paradise for scholars, media-watchers, literary biographers, visual-culture enthusiasts, and a legion of fans.

Readers can examine the complete contributions of everyone from A. J. Liebling to Donald Antrim, from Marianne Moore to Haruki Murakami, Mary Petty to Sasha Frere-Jones. We can spend an evening with all 1796 of the cartoons Helen Hokinson drew for the magazine, marvel at Saul Steinberg’s elegant lines in unprecedented close-up, or study the evolution of Richard Avedon’s photographs—all placed amid the ads for Broadway shows and war bonds that give these experiences their vital context. We can arrange pages in virtual folders and festoon them with electronic sticky notes that will never fall off; even better, we can print selections out as handsome PDFs. Forget the latest issue for a moment—there’s something truly wondrous about seeing a page from a 1927 New Yorker spooling out of your laser printer.

Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founding editor, famously said that he didn’t intend his magazine for the old lady in Dubuque, but as long as she has the know-how and the equipment (newish operating systems on either PCs or Macs), even she can click through the entirety of his creation. Searching the archive, while not fully intuitive, goes smoothly once you get the hang of it. Considering the limitations of electronic interfaces, the designers of The Complete New Yorker have done an admirable job evoking the warm accessibility of the physical object—particularly in the “flip mode,” which lets readers virtually “turn” the pages of any given issue. In an affectionate gesture to readers’ priorities, the archive lets users skip the articles altogether and jump straight from cartoon to cartoon.

Longtime readers will take great pleasure in exploring issues published during the magazine’s first two decades, from the justly named “golden age” of magazines. It takes only a few clicks through the archive to see how much The New Yorker’s vision expanded after World War II, responding to the seriousness of the times to shift from light, high-society humor to uncompromising political and cultural commentary on the world at large—not just Manhattan’s smart set.

Books about The New Yorker’s history abound, and every tale of succession at the magazine is well documented. Now readers can see the subtleties and variations of each editor’s tenure for themselves. Critics have groused that the publication avoided social commentary in the tumultuous 1930s; in fact, as historian Eric Solomon has documented, it published enough articles and cartoons sympathetic to the downtrodden that a prominent politician described the magazine as “an organ for Communist propaganda.”

Perhaps just as surprisingly—as skeptical readers will see when they browse through the six years of issues Tina Brown edited—Brown didn’t ruin the magazine; amid the messes she certainly made, she also cultivated groundbreaking talents like Françoise Mouly, who is still the magazine’s covers editor. As cartoonist Liza Donnelly documents in Funny Ladies, a new book about women artists at The New Yorker, Brown was also a determined advocate for female cartoonists, whose presence in the magazine had dwindled shamefully for decades.

David Remnick, The New Yorker’s current and oft-celebrated editor, is vocal about his resistance to preserving the magazine’s traditions in amber. Remnick has made thoughtful, steady changes in both the look and the content of the magazine since he began in 1998. Some wise alterations took place before his time, of course. Until the mid-1990s, for instance—perhaps to keep readers serious-minded about content instead of distracted by writerly celebrity—the magazine had no table of contents, and “The Talk of the Town” was written by—who knows? Resolving these mysteries, the diligent archivists have reconstructed full tables of contents for every issue and put names on all those winsome, anonymous “Talks.”

Harold Ross knew what he wanted from the beginning, when he declared, “The New Yorker expects to be distinguished in its illustrations.” Seen as a whole, the body of New Yorker art is a singular, astonishing history of American visual culture, and the magazine continues to be a proud showcase for a special set of graphic obsessions—Rea Irvin’s signature typeface, the cover’s yearly visit with the monocled Eustace Tilley, neat columns of text broken by whimsical spot drawings, and, of course, the one-panel cartoons that are instantly recognizable as belonging to The New Yorker.

Those cartoons are the subject of some of the most vocal debate about the magazine’s evolution. Their upper-middle-class sheen and tendency to avoid sensitive subject matter, once established, didn’t wear off easily. Still, it’s the very predictability of the visual setups we know so well—desert islands, barstools, the gates of St. Peter, the executive’s office—that, like all rigid forms, has allowed for so much sublime invention. Artists such as Charles Addams, Edward Koren, Charles Barsotti, Bruce Eric Kaplan, and Roz Chast have all gleefully rewritten a scene The New Yorker set long ago—cleverly warping, in the apt phrase of Ben Yagoda’s book about the magazine, the world it made.

This is the first edition of The Complete New Yorker, and there are a few glitches. Not every image is scanned as carefully as it might be, and the search software has room for improvement. Quibbles aside—and despite the delight, which will surely never fade, of reading vintage magazines in their tactile, physical form—The Complete New Yorker is a marvel. The New Yorker’s success has derived in great part from its ability to allow readers to intertwine the magazine’s enthusiasms with their own; this archive enables readers to wander the magazine’s history, discovering their own versions of its magnificence.

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