"The World Through a Monocle"

A new study explores race, class and the New Yorker.

Published April 15, 1999 3:52PM (EDT)

It takes a while to adjust to the fact that "The World Through a Monocle," Mary F. Corey's study of the New Yorker from the end of World War II to the beginning of the '60s, is less about the magazine than about the audience over which it wielded such enormous influence. Corey, who teaches history at UCLA, isn't especially interested in writing per se or in literary values. But the conclusions she has drawn from poring over the crumbling pages of all those half-century-old issues are revelatory: Her investigations into the magazine's attitudes toward atomic science, McCarthyism, race relations, class, gender and alcohol uncover a bad case of moral jitters throbbing under the confident surface of mid-century privilege.

Corey zeroes in on the class biases of affluent liberalism with icy astuteness. "By and large New Yorker writers categorically declared themselves unracists -- people for whom making an ethnic slur would be as unlikely as drinking Southern Comfort, reading 'Forever Amber,' or having plastic slipcovers," she observes cuttingly. "Racism was the appalling purview of lower-class people." (The "delicate etiquette of racial relations," she points out, was such a mine field that it led to a legion of bumbling white servants in the magazine's cartoons and fiction, when the reality was that most domestics, Northern and Southern, were black: African-American clowns were out of the question.) Not even the magazine's stand against redbaiting gets off the hook. "In the New Yorker village," Corey notes, "the Communist-hunters were always the moral and intellectual inferiors of their prey ... The magazine's weapons of choice came from a profoundly undemocratic arsenal: the enemies were illogical, they used bad grammar, they couldn't spell or capitalize, and they displayed an unsavory hunger for power."

Corey's gimlet eye doesn't always serve her well. When she gets inquisitorial about the cartoons, huffing that it's "difficult to discern just what is supposed to be funny" about Charles Addams' drawing of a white hunter and a pygmy woman in a shotgun wedding, you can only wince for her. But there's not much to argue with in the evidence she presents of the magazine's unconscious racism and, in "its wax museum of nags, bitches, courtesans, and dimwits," its sexism.

Corey's argument begins with her own brooding puzzlement over the New Yorker's strange mixed marriage of social consciousness and luxury advertising, a contradiction its readers felt in their own lives. "They were riven by doubts," she concludes, "about the conflict between an enjoyment of social privilege and the moral cost of such privilege," and the magazine, she reasons, "performed for them the task of spanning the anxious chasm between goodness and acquisitiveness." And so ending with the Port Huron Statement of 1962 -- the very moment when all those contradictions that one embarrassed generation had swept under the rug were yanked out to air by the next -- is a brilliant stroke. In a flash you see the direct line from suburban liberalism, well-meaning but smug, to the tormented and guilt-ridden New Left. The arc of her argument is beautiful.

Her unapologetically academic prose, unfortunately, isn't. As many New Yorkers as she's studied, you'd think that some of the magazine's breezy elegance would have rubbed off on her. Her clunkiness is especially frustrating since it's so apparent that she can write well. (The title is a typical example of her wit.) The case she makes is easy to follow -- she never stoops to jargon -- but still, the way the book is written will keep it from attaining a wider audience, because (is it a point of academic honor?) it's oddly clear from the way it's written that she doesn't seek one.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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