Thursday, March 27, 2003

[3/27/2011] The good-bye to McNulty, and unhappy words directed to Shawn (continued)


NOBODY who knew McNulty as man or writer could ever have confused him for a moment with anybody else. His presence in a room -- or in a town, for that matter -- was as special as the way he put words down on paper. His death last Sunday darkened the world for literally countless friends and acquaintances, for he seemed to know everybody. He came back to New York in the early thirties from a long sojourn in the Middle West, and in 1937 he began writing pieces for this magazine. They were the reports of a true and eager eye and ear that found high excitement in both the unusual and the common phrases and postures of men, and turned them into the sparkle of his unique idiom.

The days didn't go by for John McNulty; they happened to him. He was up and out every morning, wandering the beloved streets and 'avenyas' of his city, stopping to talk and listen to everybody. His week was a seven-day circus that never lost its savor. He was not merely an amusing companion; he was one of the funniest of men. When he told a tale of people or places, it had a color and vitality that faded in the retelling by anyone else. The name McNulty, for us, meant 'Inimitable,' and at the same time something in lower case, familiar and cherished -- a kind of synonym for laughter. We grieve that such a man cannot be replaced, in our hearts or on our pages, but we are happy that we have published more than threescore of the pieces he wrote.


Already while Harold Ross was alive Thurber was complaining increasingly about the apparently increasingly heavy hand of The New Yorker's editors, which he felt disregarded the concept that writers might have conscious intent in their writing, that they might actually know better than the editors what they mean and write what they meant to more successfully than those editors grasped, and this had the unfortunate effect of making all New Yorker writers sound the same. It's clear that in Thurber's mind the problems increased considerably after William Shawn took over as editor following Ross's death in 1951. Thurber increasingly found himself second-guessed by junior editors mechanically applying half-understood rules with no consideration or comprehension of his fairly obsessive attention to detail in his writing.

In the volume Thurber Letters, the editors introduce this letter by noting that when Shawn began with the magazine in the '30s as a "Talk of the Town" reporter, he "had been rewritten by Thurber." The note notes that Shawn was asked "years later" about such editing as changing Thurber's phrase "as a man and writer" to "man and writer" and his "darkened the day" to "darkened the world," and "decided Thurber had been right."
West Cornwall, Connecticut
July 31,1956
Mr. William Shawn
The New Yorker
25 West 43rd Street
New York, N Y.

Dear Bill:

Since the New Yorker obits are signed by The Editors and deal with persons we all knew and loved, it is right and fitting that each of us should get in a word of his own, and so I have no complaint about the minor changes in the McNulty piece. I once changed "regret" to "sorrow," in the Dave Lardner obit which I didn't write.

In defense of my own careful writing, however, let me point you a few points: "as a man and writer" is not only intimate and correct, but mcnulty ("A Man Gets Around"); "as man and writer" is painfully correct and utterly reminiscent of the deplorable stuffiness of the Ross funeral oration, still a sorry thing in many of our minds.

"Darkened the day" not only has the literary quality of alliteration, in a piece about a man who loved verbal music, but as a student of the OED I can assure you that "day" refers to something longer than a 24-hour period, when the context clearly supports this extension of time. I didn't object, because "world" would please McNulty's friends and family, but the world is actually a dark place, for one thing, and for another it can scarcely be darkened in a literal sense. Furthermore "darkened the day" has biblical origin, and we speak of a man's day and nation. Again, it is the day that has light, and not the world. The omission of the word "parlance" made things simpler for our mentally young readers in the great Ross tradition of simple clarity, but McNulty told stories of parlance, as witness any of his titles, such as "She Was a Bostonian, They Call 'Em." Parlance means "a way of speaking, or of language." I am glad that you did not change "people" to "persons," for while McNulty was interested in persons, he always called them people. I put all this down for you editors not so much in defense of my own perfectionism and precision, but as a kind of guide for editors who are likely to be less literary than formalistic, and who occasionally need a lecture about the magnificent use of words as well as their accuracy. I think it turned out fine anyway, and I was glad I could write it for John and for the New Yorker, since I knew him better and longer than any other man and he once said in print that his best friends were Jim Thurber and Tim Costello. [Costello was the proprietor of Costello's saloon, the "place on Third Avenue" referred to in the title of the McNulty anthology This Place on Third Avenue. -- Ed.] Love and kisses to you all.

As ever,
James Thurber

P.S. You might be interested in looking up "day" in the OED. It does not come from the Latin, but from the German.

It is a great tribute to the New Yorker that its sometimes cold, grammatical strictures were seldom permitted to bind or confine the special grace and wonder of John McNulty's own personal phrasing. I hope we will never again use "update" or "downgrade."


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