It arrived a few days ago in a box no thicker than one used to pack the average hardback and no heavier than a pound of Georgia peaches: "The Complete New Yorker" on eight DVDs. All 4,000-odd issues going back to the first on Feb. 21, 1925, with Eustace Tilly on the cover, a Parisian perfume ad on the flip side, and "Of All Things," a forgotten feature that preceded the unforgettable "Talk of the Town," starting with this paragraph: "Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection. Well, competition is the life of the party, as Mr. LaFollette might have it." (In 1925, general knowledge could be assumed enough of readers to make first-name references unnecessary.)
In his introduction to the DVD set, David Remnick, only the magazine's fifth editor after Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, describes the substance of the magazine's beginning as "all meringue," its pages flowing with their "over-all mood of gaiety, even if that gaiety seems a bit forced and, now, antique." Sure enough, but even that first paragraph is like a strand of DNA right out of cultural and political history. It's as if you're flipping through the 20th century all over again. Who remembers the LaFollettes (Fighting Bob and his son, Robert Jr.), the Wisconsin senators who hated big business, stood up for civil liberties and made Republicans turn green? Speaking of which: Where are today's LaFollettes, who could teach liberals a thing or two about conviction?
The New Yorker didn't have anything to say the week LaFollette Jr. blew his brains out, in 1953, 28 years virtually to the day his family name served as the magazine's first punch-line. E.B. White -- of "Strunk & White," to all of you victims of that tyrannical little white book -- opened that week's "Comment" section with a characteristically anal plaint about the secretary of state using the word "democrat" when he means "democratic." This isn't to deny the issue's happy devotion to the noble and the serious that week, with a Brendan Gill review of Simone deBeauvoir's "The Seconde Sex," a typically sparkling piece by A.J. Liebling, the last great media critic, and a piece by Rebecca West that became, 11 years later, a book called "The New Meaning of Treason." Judging from Sidney Hook's review in the New York Times in 1964, West's book could have been written yesterday: "Danger also lurks in the measures a free society may be goaded into accepting when, in frenzied reaction to laxness in its security season, it hunts for scapegoats and paralyzes its own defense of an impossible quest for total security."
It's all in those DVDs: Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Hanna Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" and its opening paragraph packing twenty billion tons of TNT, Janet Flanner's 1936 profile of Hitler and its strangely featuroid opening: "Dictator of a nation devoted to splendid sausages, cigars, beer, and babies, Adolf Hitler is a vegetarian, teetotaler, nonsmoker, and celibate. He was a small-boned baby and was tubercular in his teens. He says that as a youth he was always considered an eccentric." Would anyone have dared write such an opening to anything fuhreroidal two, three years later?
If The New Yorker can do all this for $100, why not everyone else? But what everyone else? It's not as if the quality is out there, begging to be archived. Time? Newsweek? L'Express? Might as well archive a trinity of landfills. Esquire? For the 1960s and 70s maybe, but beyond that it's been pornography's godparent. Commentary, The Atlantic and The Nation? Maybe. Then what? Face it: The New Yorker has had no likes, nothing that packs so much literary and historical heft with such density, nothing worth the nostalgia for a time when general culture seemed both to matter and to be attainable as it no longer is in this culturally fragmented, ferociously anti-intellectual climate of ours. Not even today's New Yorker lives up to its archival value, though Remnick has been restoring some of the luster.
What would Liebling say of all this DVD splurge? No idea. But here's the very last thing he said in the magazine for which he wrote for so many decades, the very last line of a review of Albert Camus' wonderful "Notebooks," a line that speaks just as well of the DVD collection at hand: "But it is intensely enjoyable for its own sake -- a long conversation with a companion who does not pall."
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 News Journal