Never a day goes by that I don’t wonder at the trek the New Yorker cartoon has made in its ninety-three years; how it began, how it developed, and what it has become. For those with the time and energy (and either a complete collection of the magazine, access to a library with bound copies, or a subscription to the magazine allowing you access to its archives) the graphic evidence is available in the pages of the magazine’s issues, beginning with the very first in February of 1925, and carrying through to the latest issue on the newsstand and/or on whatever electronic device you use.
The how it began part is well documented, especially in Thomas Kunkel’s great biography of Harold Ross, Genius in Disguise, and in a number of other books (among them, Lee Lorenz’s Art of The New Yorker , and Ross,The New Yorker and Me, by Jane Grant, Ross’s first wife and co-founder of the magazine; heck, I’ll throw in my Arno biography too — I spend much of it describing how the art department and the art developed). These books and others fill in the history, providing atmosphere, personalities — you know: the who, what, where, whys, and whens.
A favorite title is shown above. Dale Kramer’s Ross and The New Yorker, published in 1951 (it had an earlier incarnation, in part, in the pages of Harper’s in 1943, with a co-author, George R. Clark). Mr. Kramer had the luxury of working in a time period when all of the major players of the magazine were around (Helen Hokinson perished in plane crash in 1949 just a couple of the years before the book came out; Ross died in the year the book was published). If you read Harrison Kinney’s The Thurber Letters, you’ll find a good deal of correspondence from Thurber to Kramer, guiding and correcting him. After reading the manuscript, Thurber told E.B. White he thought Kramer’s writing was “undistinguished” but he didn’t “vehemently” disagree with anything in it.
What is always of interest (to me) in accounts of the magazine’s beginnings is the how the development of the New Yorker cartoon is handled. I think Kramer does a good job describing the earliest days, of what Ross was looking for, or not wanting (echoing the oft-quoted “he didn’t know what he wanted, but he knew what he didn’t want”), of Rea Irvin’s invaluable part in the art’s development.
I’m forever struck by Ross’s care for the art and artists — how important a part of the magazine it and they were to him. In any of the books I’ve mentioned here, you’ll find a variation of the passage below laying out just how much Ross cared. It is that care that was the foundation of the magazine’s art. That’s how this began, with great care, and an appreciation for the art, most especially the cartoons.
Here’s Kramer on Ross and the magazine’s art:
Ross’s major contribution to “art” — the designation given to cartoons, spot drawings, illustrations, caricatures, and cover paintings — was the same curiosity and fierce demand for accuracy that was helping to bring the text into focus. He queried constantly, “Where am I in this picture?” The reader, he maintained, ought to be at a definite vantage point. He should be watching an action or overhearing a conversation.
Or Ross would ask, “Who’s talking?” Sometimes the artist was requested to open the speaker’s mouth wider. Ross was dealing, of course, with the people and the objects in the drawings, rather than craftsmanship. By demanding that the characters be plain to him, and seen from a particular vantage point, he naturally got better craftsmanship. The artists discovered, with some reluctance since they often had to do a drawing over and over again, that Ross’s demands, put into artistic sense by Irvin — along with Irvin’s own suggestions — resulted in better pictures.
To those who have admired the art of the New Yorker, “better pictures” might seem an understatement, but it’ll do just fine. Better pictures was something to shoot for, and I believe most of the devoted would agree, something attained.