Genius in Disguise Harold Ross of The New Yorker
by Thomas Kunkel, Random House, 512 pages .
The first issue of The New Yorker appeared on the newsstands seventy years ago last February. It would have taken a prescient reader indeed to see in the publication’s feebly hectic contents the embryo of the most influential magazine in American history. How Harold Wallace Ross ranted and prodded and provoked his creation into becoming something that approached his platonic vision is the subject of this briskly told, wholly absorbing biography.
“A more unlikely literary avatar than Harold Ross is hard to imagine,” writes Thomas Kunkel, “for he was a man of spectacular contradictions.… Ross’s personal reading ran to dictionaries (Fowler’s Modern English Usage , particularly) and true-detective magazines. He was a prototypical Westerner whose magazine embodied Eastern urbanity. He was a coarse, profane man with a near-perfect ear for language.”
Born in 1892 in the hard-handed world of the Colorado silver mines, Ross led a knockabout career as a reporter before joining the Army, where he edited the enormously popular soldiers’ magazine Stars and Stripes during the First World War. One of his writers in the first New Yorker years saw Ross’s editorship as “the chargings-about of a man in a canebrake, trying blindly to get through to the clearer ground he is certain must lie beyond.”
Ross found that clear ground eventually, and very high ground it turned out to be. In later years many of the superb writers he gathered about him half-consciously conspired to formulate a cheery myth of Ross as a sort of semiliterate idiot savant whom they both restrained and directed. Kunkel demonstrates with verve and humor that he was a far better, far more interesting creature than that.