Buzzed Books #47 by Adelia Johnson
Thomas Vinciguerra’s Cast of Characters
Thomas Vinciguerra’s Cast of Characters by is a biography of the early days of The New Yorker. Though sometimes hard to follow due to the large quantity of “characters” mentioned, I found myself wanting to pick up my pen and start a journal of my own—and I never wanted to be a journalist. The New Yorker’s journey to success was an uncertain journey of trial, error, and willpower, a true hero’s journey.
Within each chapter, there were chronological jumps that were hard to keep track of , but the overall timeline worked, from the start of The New Yorker to E. B. White’s departure from the magazine on October 1st, 1985 with the final note that
the cartoonist Brian Duffy of the Des Moines Register seized on the Garth Williams illustration of Charlotte’s Web that depicted Charlotte having spun out the words SOME PIG. Duffy rendered a mournful Wilbur poised beneath the silken epigraph SOME WRITER.
The book does a final jump to 2007 when Vinciguerra visited the ex-wife of Tony Gibbs, the son of The New Yorker’s editor/essayist/critic Wolcott Gibbs.
The book explores the relationships at the office, including all of the shenanigans they would pull like playing poker with the different-colored routing slips as chips. There were a central group of people that the stories revolved around: the editor-in-chief Howard Ross; and writers and editors E. B. White, James Thurber and Wolcott Gibbs. Other recurring figures included Katherine White, Lois Long, St. Clair McKelway, Alexander Woollcott, John O’Hara, and Ralph Ingersoll.
Cast of Characters starts out on Fire Island with Gibbs reading a copy of his manuscript, quoting on page 2 “[Being on Fire Island] was a state of wonderful irresponsibility, a time in which you belonged to nobody but yourself, on which there were no immediate claims from the world.” Most of chapter 8, “A Silly Occupation for a Grown Man,” was dedicated to his becoming of a renowned theater critic. However, Vinciguerra was also keen on the personal lives of Ross, White, and Thurber, making sure to discuss their marriages and views of women.
Vinciguerra mimics The New Yorker’s style with passages like this one on page 177: “Thurber was so tickled by this doggerel that he adorned it with a caricature of himself waving at four stern-faced men labeled ‘Gibbs, Maloney, O’hara etc.’ with the impish greeting ‘Hi, Fellas!’” This made the reading more entertaining as well as it giving the reader a taste of how the magazine sounds without ever having to pick up a copy — but I doubt a reader would not want to after reading this. The reader also gets a taste of Timestyle during the chapter discussing the feud between The New Yorker and Time, adding a new flavor.
This book is not only a good inspiration to writers; I found myself being inspired as an editor, as well. In a quote by William Maxwell about Gibbs teaching him how to edit, Maxwell noted, “In time I came to feel that real editing means changing as little as possible.” Gibbs had thrown Maxwell headfirst into editing, offering only constructive criticism after the edits had been made, and even the criticisms were slim. But they got their point across.
Cast of Characters is a good introduction to those new to The New Yorker, and a good history of the magazine for those already well acquainted with it.
I was inspired not only to start something, but to be diligent, to be better. The New Yorker was made out of relentless fingers to keys, sleepless nights, and years of experience. I should be able to create something that’s at least good.
Adelia Johnson (Episode 226) is a graduate of Full Sail University.