Talk of the Town and Gown

By Ellen Gilbert

“I have two words: John McPhee.” The New Yorker editor David Remnick’s (’81) explanation of what Princeton meant to him. 

“Your parents will remember your graduation almost as acutely, and with the same sense of wonder, as they remember the day you entered this world,” observed New Yorker editor David Remnick (’81) in his 2013 Class Day speech at Princeton University. “It’s an incredibly moving thing to see your child go into the word as a whole healthy person,” added the father of three.

As proud as they were at the time, Remnick’s own parents apparently had to adjust their thinking after he entered Princeton. “I majored in comparative literature — what my father insisted on calling ‘fancy English,’” Remnick recalled in his Class Day comments. “My mother, anticipating a doctor or a lawyer in the family, announced, in her disappointment, that I would now surely be able to open a ‘comparative literature store.’”

When you think about it, that’s not a bad description of The New Yorker, and Remnick’s mom might be reassured by the number of distinguished writers and artists like her son and his mentor, John McPhee, who have ties to both Princeton and The New Yorker, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this month.

MCPHEE

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author John McPhee, who has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1963, was born in Princeton in 1931 and still lives here. He graduated from Princeton in 1953, and is currently Ferris Professor of Journalism. “I grew up all over campus,” McPhee told Paris Review’s Peter Hessler. “I knew the location of every urinal and every pool table.”

“A Sense of Where You Are,” McPhee’s first New Yorker profile, appeared on January 23, 1963 and was about, not surprisingly, a Princeton-centric subject: Princeton University basketball star and future senator Bill Bradley. A book-length version with the same title appeared two years later. Hessler points out that that first book “seemed to free McPhee. . . even as he continued to live in his hometown,” and, to be sure, McPhee’s subjects and locations since then have ranged far and wide. His 30 books—many of which originated as New Yorker essays—include Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.

LITERARY LIGHTS

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was from the class of 1917, and his papers—all 44 linear feet, 89 archival boxes, and 11 oversize containers of them—are housed in Firestone Library. His ties to The New Yorker are a little more tentative than some. “Fitzgerald’s work did not always meet with rejection from The New Yorker’s editors: between 1929 and 1937, he published three short stories and two poems in our pages,” the magazine reported in 2012.  “The stories were brief and humorous in nature.”  There’s more, though: the occasion for the 2012 look back at Fitzgerald’s contributions to the magazine was the publication of a recently discovered story he had written in 1936, “Thank You For the Light.”

In his essay “My Lost City,” Fitzgerald remembers former classmate Edmund Wilson as “the shy little scholar of Holder Court.”  Wilson (1895-1972) graduated in 1916 and later became a New Yorker staff writer. An early poem, “Disloyal Lines to Alumnus,” accepted by New Yorker editor Katherine Angell White, improvised on his Princeton experience:

I, too, have faked the glamor of gray towers,

I, too, have sung the ease of sultry hours —   

Deep woods, sweet lanes, wide playing fields, smooth ponds.

Over his long, distinguished career, Wilson wrote for Vanity Fair, helped edit The New Republic, served as chief book critic for The New Yorker, and was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. The author of more than 20 books, he was eulogized by Isaiah Berlin as “the most important critic of the twentieth century,” and writer Philip Lopate quotes New Yorker editor William Shawn describing Wilson’s prose as “’one of the half-dozen best expository and critical styles in the history of English.’”

In a 2005 piece in—where else? —The New Yorker, Louis Menand described Wilson’s career as being based on the belief “that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with the exposition, make it interesting and important to other people.”  Menand quotes Wilson as saying that to “write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity.”

It’s probably no coincidence that writer John O’Hara (1905-1970) spent the latter part of his life in Princeton and is buried there. Fitzgerald-worship began early for O’Hara; he read This Side of Paradise as a teenager, and the first of his many short stories for the magazine began to appear in 1928 when he was only 23 years old.  Brendan Gill, who worked with O’Hara at The New Yorker, ranks him as “among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language,” and credits him with helping “to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story.”

ALUMNI/STAFF WRITERS

Writer John Brooks (’42) was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker who specialized in financial topics. Bill Gates called Business Adventures, a compilation of 12 of Brooks’s New Yorker stories published in 1969, his favorite business book (and claimed it was Warren Buffett’s favorite business book, too). Writing about Brooks, who died in 1993, New Yorker archivist Joshua Rothman notes that “he approached business in an unusual way. He had an eye for the technical details that mattered to insiders, but the sensibility of a broad-minded cultural critic.”

A New Yorker staff writer since 1960, Calvin Tomkins (’47) wrote his first fiction piece for the magazine in 1958, and his first fact piece in 1962.  His 1962 New Yorker profile of Gerald and Sara Murphy, describing the lives of American expatriates in France in the years between World War I and World War II, became the well-received 1971 book, Living Well Is the Best Revenge: The Life of Gerald and Sara Murphy. An excerpt from Robert Caro’s (’57), celebrated multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson ran in The New Yorker, and he used a 1998 New Yorker piece, “The Man Who Built New York,” to describe how he came to write The Power Broker, a major biography of Robert Moses.

VISUALLY SPEAKING

New Yorker artist Virginia Snedeker’s connection to Princeton is non-negotiable: her great-great-great-great grandmother was Annis Boudinot Stockton, who gave Morven its name.  Snedeker made important contributions to the magazine including “spot art”—the small decorative drawings scattered throughout each issue—and a number of cover illustrations.  In the catalog for Morven’s 2010 exhibit, Capturing the Spirit: Virginia Snedeker and the American Scene, curator Anne Gossen detailed Snedeker’s remarkable ability to capture the Zeitgeist of the ‘30s, ‘40s’ and ‘50s, and to respond to New Yorker editors’ request for art that spoke to wartime concerns.  A reviewer observed that Gossen had “done a first-rate job of laying out the evidence for anyone who wants to see how things worked between the magazine and its artists.”

New Yorker cartoons are enduringly, famously funny; most people have at least one or more favorites and can quote the Carl Rose/E. B. White classic depicting a mop-headed child dismissively answering her well-meaning, broccoli-promoting mother with the immortal words, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”  Those with Princeton links include Whitney Darrow, Jr., who was born in Princeton, and whose father was one of the founders of the Princeton University Press.  A member of the class of 1931, he had his first New Yorker cartoon published just two years later; he remained a regular contributor for 50 years. Unlike a number of his colleagues, Darrow, who often drew upper-middle-class suburban couples, wrote his own captions. “He is an environmental cartoonist, in that he goes on setting the scene in that misleadingly easygoing style of his until he is ready for a one-liner,” observed New York Times art critic John Russell in 1978. “And what a one-liner!” After his death in 1999, Darrow’s family donated over a thousand of his drawings to the Graphic Arts Department in Princeton’s Rare Books and Manuscripts section.

Another regular New Yorker cartoonist, longtime Princeton resident Henry Martin (’48), made a similar donation to the Princeton University Library himself in 2010. “Henry never made fun of somebody,” observed graphic arts librarian Julie Melby at the time.  “He was just funny. Some people are great artists. Some are great writers. Henry was both.”

Now based in New York City, cartoonist Arnold Roth lived in Princeton from 1963 to 1984.  In a 2012 interview marking the opening of a retrospective exhibit at the Princeton Arts Council, Roth, who was born in Philadelphia, said that coming to Princeton “was happenstance.”  A random drive through town “in April, when everything was in bloom” enchanted the Roths; “we thought we’d give it a try and stayed for 21 years.”

THE PRESENT

More recently, authors with ties to both institutions include Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Moy Sand and Gravel, whose new collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, is just out.  Muldoon holds a professorship at the University and is current poetry editor at The New Yorker, where his innovations include regular Poetry Podcasts of conversations and readings with guest poets. The Nobel-Prize-Winning author of Beloved, Toni Morrison, continued to contribute regularly to The New Yorker while serving as Princeton’s Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities from 1989 until her retirement in 2006.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex) is currently a faculty member at Princeton where he teaches classes in creative writing and introductory fiction. His byline has appeared in The New Yorker under short stories like “Find the Bad Guy,” an appreciation of John Updike, and an excerpt from The Marriage Plot. Another Princeton Creative Writing teacher, Gary Shteyngart, packed McCosh Hall when he appeared as the featured speaker at the 2014 Friends of the Princeton Public Library’s “Beyond Words” fund-raiser. The author of the novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, was named one of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40” luminary fiction writers in 2010. He’s a regular contributor now, with recent posts chronicling book tour experiences for his new memoir, Little Failure.

MCPHEE AND REMNICK

McPhee looms large – very large – in Remnick’s life. “I have two words,” he responded in a recent interview when asked to describe what Princeton meant to him. “John McPhee.”

“There are a number of writers and editors over the years who have been associated with Princeton, but the person who has made a life there has been John,” Remnick observed. “It’s a huge part of his consciousness, the landscape of life. It imbues what he thinks about and what he writes.”

In addition to the model of a longtime association with Princeton, Remnick appreciated the pragmatic aspect of studying with McPhee. “If you study at Princeton you usually study with literary scholars,” he told Witherspoon Media. “The difference here is you’re studying with a practicing writer and learning all the processes that go into that.”

Editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992, Remnick has done no small amount of thinking and writing himself. His book, Lenin’s Tomb, won a Pulitzer Prize and his New Yorker pieces include reports on the Middle East and Profiles of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Katharine Graham.

Remnick, who was born in Hackensack but grew up in Hillsdale, is frank about his take on Princeton before he met McPhee. “At first glance it seemed like a country club: off putting and intimidating and too shiny to look at.” Returning to campus as Class Day speaker in 2013, though, he was still bemused but clearly appreciative. “Now I don’t love Princeton for the eternal Halloween of its school colors,” he joked. “What I loved about Princeton, and always will, was the real core of it: The learning, the fantastically varied company, the enshrinement of free thinking, the rigor.”

Of McPhee, he humorously observes, “He was my teacher and now I exact my revenge by being his editor – and friend.”