E.B. White Hen-Pecks Harold Ross

February 21: The New Yorker magazine celebrates its eighty-sixth anniversary today. In the first issue, dated this day in 1925, editor Harold Ross promised that the magazine would be "a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life":

It will be human. Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will be not what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers. It will hate bunk . . . .

On the visual side, Ross's famous promise to deliver a magazine "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque" was largely achieved by art editor, Rea Irvin. But it is Ross's personality and preferences which dominate most accounts of the magazine's early days. The following is from James Thurber's The Years with Ross:

He had a sound sense, a unique, almost intuitive perception of what was wrong with something, incomplete or out of balance, understated or over-emphasized. He reminded me of an army scout riding at the head of a troop of cavalry who suddenly raises his hand in a green and silent valley and says, "Indians," although to the ordinary eye and ear there is no faintest sign or sound of anything alarming.

Many eminent contributors and staffers balked at the over-protection their prose received from Ross and his fastidious editorial troops. Seeing that someone had changed "hen" to "her" in his "Notes and Comment" piece on pigeons and squabs, E. B. White wrote to Ross to inquire if the change was a typo or a correction:

Ten years ago I would have been reasonably sure it was a typo. Today, with pigeon-checking at the pitch it has reached, I can't be so sure. …[I]f the NYer ever reaches that degree of perfection toward which it is tending, when each word will have been taken aside and re-plated with silver, there won't be much left. I should not live 500 miles away and write about pigeons. It is too far away, and I know too much about pigeons.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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