Witty Slices Taken from the Big Apple; about Town - the New Yorker and the World It Made. by Ben Yagoda (Duckworth, Pounds 20). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn

Article excerpt

All news-stand copies of one special edition of the New Yorker magazine disappeared the day they appeared and when Albert Einstein tried to buy 1,000 copies, he was told they were all sold out.

Within a fortnight, a second-hand copy of this edition was bought for $18 at auction.

This extraordinary state of affairs arose when the magazine, famous for its humour, decided to devote an entire issue to John Hersey's account of the horrific bombing of Hiroshima.

Yagoda's book fails to match the vivid anecdotal flair of Brendan Gill's masterful, joyously illustrated account of his 40 years with the magazine, Here at the New Yorker, published in 1975.

But what it does provide is an authoritative, critical analysis of the magazine. His account of the Hiroshima decision offers an interesting insight into the clear-headed visionary thinking of the magazine's great editor Harold Ross.

Ross wrote in August 1946: 'Hersey has written 30,000 words on the bombing of Hiroshima (which I can now pronounce in a new and fancy way), one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it.

'Shawn has an idea that we should print it all in one issue and print nothing else that week . . . He wants to wake people up and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it.'

It was done after Ross embarked on one of his characteristic massive editing exercises and Yagoda describes the end-product as 'the most influential magazine article in the history of journalism'.

He also shows why with some telling extracts from the article. The virtue of Hersey's article was it showed exactly what those on the receiving end endured. Thus he opens with Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima. Later we find Dr Masakuzu Fuji standing on a porch being thrown into the Kyo River as his hospital collapsed behind him after he saw what a brilliant yellow flash in the sky.

Decades earlier, long before the Second World War cast its sombre shadow over the world, Ross had established the New Yorker as a great magazine making use of galaxy of talented humorous writers.

The gifted Dorothy Parker, the 20th century's most quick-witted female, set the tone for a new dimension in literary criticism with her Constant Reader articles for the New Yorker while other members of the Algonquin set also had a huge influence on the new magazine.

As Corey Ford wrote years earlier: 'The early 20s marked the peak of comic writing in this country, a flowering of satire and parody and sheer nonsense that has never been equalled before or since.'

The magazine was notorious for the way it treated its writers, with Ross and others altering their copy no matter how distinguished they were.

'I literally spent more time and effort restoring what I'd written than writing it,' complained the magazine's celebrated film critic Pauline Kael, who in 1972 argued that the exploitative use of violence in A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, The Cowboys and Straw Dogs constituted cinematic fascism. …