U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Irony, Engagement, and The New Yorker

Guest post by Campbell F. Scribner
University of Wisconsin
Close on the heels of the Livingston/Murphy exchange, Andrew Hartman has called for a defense of irony in history, humor, and politics.  I cannot provide a comprehensive accounting but thought I might push the conversation a bit further back than his references to 1950s liberalism.
The charge of “detachment” now leveled at humorists like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert is merely a reprise of left-wing attacks on E.B. White and James Thurber—the “heart and soul” of the New Yorker magazine—during the 1930s.  At that time the New Yorker was a sophisticated, satirical weekly that refused to publish serious political commentary.  Yet in 1946 it would release an issue comprised of a single article, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which has been recognized as one of the century’s definitive pieces of investigative journalism.  The intervening decade obviously brought a significant shift in editorial policy, which several historians describe as “a correction to the New Yorker’s much criticized silence on suffering during the Depression.”[i]  If that were the case, it would seem that the opponents of irony had won a round.
But the shift was not so simple.  The two writers that received the brunt of radicals’ criticism reacted in quite different ways.  While White brooded (and eventually broke) over accusations of irony and escapism, Thurber aggressively combated them, going out of his way to confront the magazine’s critics.  Their responses, and the New Yorker’s gradual politicization, provide a case study on the ethics of irony.

White had joined The New Yorker in 1926, a year after its founding.  He was an introspective hypochondriac who quickly assumed responsibility for the magazine’s editorial page, “commenting on the week’s events in a manner none too serious.”  Thurber was hired two years later as a writer and cartoonist, and the two men shared an office throughout the 1930s.  Thurber was slight of build, partially blind, and neurotically self-conscious, as prone to doodles and daydreaming as his famous protagonist, Walter Mitty. Yet, unlike White, he compensated for his insecurities with a brash nonchalance and pugnacious drinking habits.
The New Yorker’s earliest critics were Michael Gold and Joseph Freeman, contributors at the Stalinist magazine, The New Masses.  Met with suspicion in their own circles—the Communist Party generally regarded literature as bourgeois decadence—they took up the task of flattering or browbeating authors outside the Party into politically engaged writing. For Gold and Freeman the class struggle was literally a war of words, and the enemy was not only the capitalist plutocrat but the uncommitted writer, the one “who distrusted all convictions and ideals, whose chief foe was dullness, who insulated himself from the currents of life, who despised yokels and morons but was much farther from reality than they.” In short, the writer who worked for the New Yorker.[ii]
Critics also appeared at the Trotskyist Partisan Review, whose inaugural (1937) issue featured Dwight Macdonald expounding on the economic underpinnings of New Yorker humor.  Macdonald noted that since the stock market crash, “The brash Menckenians and the aggressively sophisticated Algonquins [of the 1920s] have been superceded by the timorous and bewildered Thurber,” whose beset, day-dreaming characters became a stand-in for the economically impotent bourgeoisie, “an expression of a deep-rooted uncertainty…which this class has come to feel in the late economic crisis.”  Macdonald likewise argued that the New Yorker’s dependence on luxury advertising required it to maintain an aloof, escapist tone. While the magazine remained “ostentatiously neutral” and “[refused], officially, to recognize the existence of wars, strikes, and revolution, just as it doesn’t mention the more unpleasant diseases,” he contended that its irony was nonetheless political, a defense mechanism of the upper class.[iii]
The New Yorker did not take these accusations too much to heart.  In its pages, Communists came in for the same sort of satire as everyone else.  For example, E.B. White quipped in April 1934:
One of the duties of the radical press is…to keep the masses in a high state of dissatisfaction with the world.  Apparently this even includes keeping them displeased with the weather. On Thursday, April 5th, we picked up our Daily Worker to get into a proper inflammatory mood for literary composition and noticed with some surprise that the forecast said: ‘WEATHER: Probably rain.’  This dire prediction failed to check with the eight capitalist dailies…predicting fair and warmer. It must be fun to run a Communist organ and give even the weather a sly twist to the left.[iv]
A month later, after the largest May Day rallies ever held in New York, a two-page cartoon appeared with the mock headline, “The Rightist Opposition Forms a United Front and Takes Over Union Square for a Counter-Demonstration.” In it hundreds of top-hatted men and bejeweled women carried signs reading “Down With Proletarian Encroachment,” “Let ’Em Eat Cake,” and “Make the World Safe for Plutocracy,” and marched in a parade of tuxedoes and foxhounds.[v]
James Thurber responded to calls for politically engaged writing with a 1936 article entitled “Notes for a Proletarian Novel,” in which he sarcastically traced literature’s progression from sentimental romance to melancholy searches for Something Worthwhile to his contemporary atmosphere, in which one was compelled to write about the workingman in drab terms, to the exclusion of love and individuality. Despite his own attachment to those “bourgeois affects,” Thurber acknowledged the need for some political consciousness.  He even admitted serving on an advocacy committee during a local waiters’ strike, but wryly stated that he could never write a novel about it because he had no idea what waiters did when they went home, and an author could not omit the home life of his characters.[vi]
Moreover, for all of their zeal, Thurber doubted whether his leftist opponents had any idea what waiters did when they went home, either.  Most, he believed, had signed on to proletarian literature as a fad and had little personal connection with the working class.  White similarly lamented the plight of the “politically anemic…[who] go to work in the morning, work hard to make a profit, and return in the evening to serve a gentle round of sherry to a roomful of leftists who insist that no more profits be made and ask for more sherry.”[vii] Many of those sherry-sippers nonetheless hoped to turn the New Yorker “into a voice of protest and rebellion” and set about trying to convert its lead writers.  Thurber was repeatedly cornered at parties and forced to defend the New Yorker’s editorial stance.  Shouting usually ensued.  He threw drinks at Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett and got into fistfights with Michael Gold and Hart Crane.
But Thurber’s responses were not limited to jabs, written or thrown: in 1936 he seriously reviewed Granville Hicks’ collection, Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935), for Malcolm Cowley and the New Republic.  In it, he dismissed Joseph Freeman, who wrote Hicks’ introduction, as juvenile and petty, and complained that most of the genre’s political critiques “[degenerated] into what [had] the thin ring of an absurd personal insult.”  Although art could be political, he maintained that politics alone do not constitute art. Armed with embarrassingly inept excerpts, he presented the writing in Proletarian Literature as pedantic, the dialogue unconvincing, and the supposedly proletarian characters utterly lacking in ethos.  More than simply its partisan material, a lack of style discredited the volume as propaganda.[viii]
Despite Thurber’s efforts at levity, the New Yorker’s copy took a grimmer turn as the Depression wore on.  Younger writers joined the staff, and submissions increasingly reflected the somber language and outlook of the era.  In 1937, White lamented that “nobody writes funny pieces anymore; all [are] written by 23 year old Jews, about life.”[ix]  White himself remained unsure of the magazine’s apolitical stance.  He later recalled feeling that “everyone else was foundering [while] we were running free” and that he “escaped the hard times undeservedly.”[x]  In 1934, Ralph Ingersoll, a Communist fellow-traveler and the editor of Fortune magazine, blamed White’s “gossamer writing” for the New Yorker’s “nebulous” tone, flatly accusing White of evading issues of unemployment and poverty.  Ingersoll pressed the issue in 1937, when White tentatively opposed Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan.  In a personal letter, Ingersoll fumed:  “I am no one to defend Roosevelt whole—too many things about him enrage me. But, so does your gentle complacency….Doesn’t that well-fed stomach of yours ever turn when you think what you’re saying?”[xi]
It was a pinprick from a personal friend, and White could think of only one response: he quit, moving to rural Maine to write and tend a small farm.
Thurber desperately tried to get him to return to New York.  “Never has there been so much to laugh at off and on,” he argued:
Those of us who are able to do that must keep on doing it, no matter who or what goes to hell, if only because Joe Freeman and his gang says we should not. It is the easiest thing in the world nowadays to become so socially conscious, so Spanish war stricken, that all sense of balance and values goes out of a person.” 
For Thurber, left-wing intellectuals were not only self-righteous but, by sacrificing the responsibility of independent creativity for the “grimly gray” Party line, their accusations of escapism rang with hypocrisy.  After all, what could be more escapist than forfeiting one’s point of view in favor of mandatory politicization, capitulating to artistic peer pressure?  The New Yorker may not have been “designed to stem tides, join crusades, or take political stands,” but Thurber found its skepticism as much “a point of moral necessity” as the Communist demand for engaged writing.[xii]
Only at the end of World War II (which the New Yorker covered in depth) did White go back to writing editorials.  For the twentieth-anniversary issue, he reflected: “We [first] armed ourself with a feather for tickling a few chins, and now…we find ourself gingerly holding a glass tube for transfusing blood….We feel like a man who left his house to go to a Punch-and-Judy show and, by some error in direction, wandered into ‘Hamlet.’” By that time the magazine had become a solidly liberal voice, and White used his space to oppose nuclear escalation and support the United Nations.[xiii]
Criticism from the Left persisted, of course, in terms increasingly aimed at the era’s liberal consensus.  In the Partisan Review, Mary McCarthy wrote that the New Yorker’s brand of liberalism merely dovetailed consumption and shallow democratic principles into a façade of good taste and knowingness.  In Dissent, Josephine Hendin leveled similar charges. “The New Yorker mystique permits us to believe we are concerned with others while treating their lives from a position of detachment, voyeurism, or even hostility,” she observed.  “It exploits the lives of those ‘in charge’ to find the ‘secret’ of their influence, and it exploits the damaged, the poor, the insane for their grotesquerie.”  In short, “its noblesse oblige is mostly noblesse.”[xiv]
These assessments seem fair in a way that Macdonald’s analysis of Thurber was not. Opinion-makers affect irony to obscure ideology or structural injustice—to excuse people from action so long as they are in on the joke.  Humorists use the same cues and conventions but hold them at arm’s length, leaving some room for discomfort and introspection.  Thurber contended that joking just for the hell of it was as dubious a proposition as creating art for art’s sake or pursuing the past on its own terms, but that one really could not do it any other way.  Putting history, art, or irony in the service of politics—or even subjecting them to academic exposition—inherently narrowed them.  “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” E.B. White observed, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”[xv]
All of this brings us back to Jon Stewart, whom Steve Almond rightly accuses of substituting “coy mockery” for “genuine subversion.”  While Almond worries that Stewart’s snarky approach has developed despite his “vital civic role [as] a dependable news source for…mostly young viewers,” I see the comedian’s growing (self-) importance as its primary cause.  Irony sits uneasily with established power.  Much like the New Yorker at mid-century, Stewart has waded into actual journalism and political advocacy, exchanging real irreverence for the piety of a cooler-, saner-than-thou liberalism.  He has become less a jester than a preacher, one that bullies from his pulpit.
Almond tries to provide an alternative vision, offering South Park as a show “willing to confront its viewers” and “savage both the defensive bigotry of conservatives and the self-righteous entitlement of the left.”  By “[exposing] the lazy assumptions and shallow gratifications of the viewing audience,” he suggests, Trey Parker and Matt Stone provide the sort of ironic introspection that I refer to above.  He gets stuck, however, on a crucial point.  Even as he praises South Park’s equal-opportunity insults, Almond claims that the “comic impulse’s more radical virtues” are somehow political virtues, that Stewart’s ironism is problematic only insofar as it absolves viewers of the need “[to] feel disgust, or take action.”  While condemning Stewart’s glib mixture of irony and liberalism, then, he mistakenly assumes that irony would sit comfortably with a more earnest, authentic brand of politics.  It would not.
I do not begrudge Stewart’s calls for comity or Almond’s cries of outrage, but each of them wants to be funny while also being right.  They can’t have it both ways.  Anyone who wants to improve the world would do well to leave irony home on the couch.
[i] Judith Yaross Lee, Defining New Yorker Humor (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000), 16; Mary F. Corey, The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[ii] Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961).  For more on proletarian literature, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996), and Alan Wald, Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
[iii] Dwight Macdonald, “Laugh and Lie Down,” Partisan Review (December 1937): 46-50.
[iv] E.B. White, “Notes and Comment,” New Yorker, February 17, 1934, 11.
[v] “The Rightist Opposition,” New Yorker, 12 May 1934, 20-22.
[vi] James Thurber, “Notes for a Proletarian Novel,” New Yorker, 9 June 1934, 15.
[vii] E.B. White, “Notes and Comment,” New Yorker, 9 June 1934, 9.
[viii] James Thurber, “Voices of Revolution,” New Republic, 25 March 1936,  200-201.
[ix] E.B. White, letter to Katharine White, c.1937-1938, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.
[x] Thomas Kunkel, Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker (New York: Random House, 1995), 183-184.
[xi] Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1984), 188, 198-199.
[xii] Helen Thurber and Edward Weeks, eds., Selected Letters of James Thurber (Boston: Little, Brown,
1981), 15.
[xiii] E.B. White, “Notes and Comment,” New Yorker, 17 February 1945, 12.
[xiv] Corey, Monocle, 37-38; Josephine Hendin, “The New Yorker as Cultural Ideal,” Dissent (Fall 1982): 450-454.
[xv] E.B. White, A Subtreasury of American Humor (New York: Modern Library, 1941), i.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the article I enjoyed the discussion about Thurber in particular. I would take issue with your final comment.

    “Anyone who wants to improve the world would do well to leave irony home on the couch.”

    I would be dubious of any historian whose expressed intent is to change the world and furthermore leaves he/she open to ironic disdain.

    In my opinion irony, if it’s true, is ultimately centrist. It identifies excess in speech or act and illustrates its conflict with itself or the perceived norm. It functions as a corrective in social discourse. It also seeks to normalize an otherwise stressful or dire condition to wit, holocaust survivor’s reliance on “dark humor”. Even when used by leftist’s or rightist’s the use of irony is used typically to show how extreme the opposition’s point of view. Irony is not a tool for a call to arms or for championing a position it humanizes and disarms, it deflates pomposity. When used by a historian the exercise of irony should be used with restraint, to highlight, to enlarge.

    If Jon Stewart appears self righteous well that is his shtick and he attracts a lot of viewers and that’s what he gets paid for so criticizing him for not being a better social commentator is a little like criticizing Mariano Rivera for being a bad hitter or Michael Phelps for being a bad interview.

  2. Thanks for this provocative take on Thurber and White–especially the image of Thurber mixing it up with Hart Crane, et. al.

    I wonder, though, is it truly impossible to employ irony for public political purposes? It’s certainly hard, and often unfruitful in the end, but I think in the case of White that he tried to do just this. As Scribner hints, across the 30s and into the war, he (and in some cases the NYer) developed more of a political voice. It was one that used irony and detachment and humor to not only spoof but also to advocate. This was a political mode that would never satisfy left intellectuals of either the proletarian or avant-garde bent, but in White’s writings about world government (he dove into this topic far beyond supporting the UN) he tried, I think, to come up with a voice for political engagement that would allow him, on his own artistic and journalistic terms, to encourage wide public support for this abstract ideal.

    He tried to make world government concrete by arguing for it from the perspective of nature and localism– suggesting that the idea that all humans share a love of specific places should prompt an imagined sense of relation with others who love their own place. This was an argument, that while sometimes couched in an ironic tone, was at heart sentimental.(And as such, even less appealing to his critics.)

    This did turn out to be quite difficult and agonizing for him in the long run, particularly in the Cold War years, but one could argue that it was a very effective way to reach the New Yorker’s large audience with an idea many of them would have initially discounted.

    Forgive the self-promotion, but if anyone’s interested in more on all this, I try to tell the history of White’s efforts on behalf of “the wild flag” in a recent piece for the Journal of Transnational American Studies.
    It’s here:

    –Sandy Zipp

  3. Thanks for the articulate, smart, and deeply researched analysis, Campbell. Those of us who know your work expect nothing less. I think you are surely correct about the seeming trade-offs between literary/comedic irony and acute political commentary. Nonetheless, I wonder if the New Yorker story is a red-herring. The elitism of the New Yorker has always meant that its willingness to interrogate “common man” political issues is quite limited. Hersey’s Hiroshima and Caro’s pieces on LBJ are exceptions, but they focus appropriately on big events and big personalities, not the daily grind of legislation or negotiation or horse-trading in politics.

    I can think of 2 cases where authors deployed irony in a non-elitist (perhaps anti-elitist) manner to puncture political myths and actually motivate changed political behavior. I think of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” _Hommage to Catolonia_, and _Animal Farm._ All are serious political commentaries dripping with irony (the colonial officer’s boy in Burma has the gun, but he is the most defenseless figure, etc.) They continue to move our students when they read them. I also think of Mark Twain. My 7 year-old just read Huck Finn for the first time, and he laughed at the ironies of Huck and Jim’s dialogue, but he also came away with a deeper appreciation for the evils of slavery.

    Maybe you have to be as talented as Twain or Orwell, but irony can indeed be the most effective form of political attack. Pedraic Kenney has made a similar argument about the causes behind the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. See his _Carnival of Revolution_. I also interpret Bob Darnton’s analysis of underground literature and the French Revolution in similar terms.

    Thanks for a great post, Campbell. Keep up the terrific work. We all anxiously anticipate your book.

    Jeremi Suri

  4. Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments.

    I hope my last line did not obscure the central point of the post: irony’s dissonance allows for wonderfully effective political theater and, as all three of you point out, for the deconstruction of dominant value systems (call it “interrupting hegemony” or whatever you like). My point, however, was that irony becomes useless when one needs to pick up the pieces and actually put forward one’s own political stance. “South Park” does not impel us to march on Washington, and it should not.

    Jeremi, you provide some excellent examples of ironic advocacy for the disempowered, but neither Twain nor Orwell was articulating specific criticisms of or alternatives to the racist systems they lampooned. Like all ironists, they used the gentle powers of suggestion rather than prescription. Moreover, as many critics have pointed out, they could afford to: Twain was not DuBois and Orwell was not Gandhi.

    I stand by my contention that irony cannot be ideologically orthodox, nor ever fully committed to a cause. That might make it moderate, as Paul suggests, although I would again point to Stewart as an example of irony bound too tightly to moderation. I think it is best interpreted as therapeutic (for those out of power as well as those in) and, while it need to be apolitical, at root detached from political commitment.

    –Cam Scribner

  5. Perhaps you would accept the following reformulation of your point: irony cannot be the dominant mode for the articulation of political militancy. Maybe? With the key point being the introduction of the term militancy, to distinguish between the New Yorker and the Communists, or, say, Jon Stewart and Ron Paul.

    But is this to weaken it too much?

    I’m thinking about **The Communist Manifesto*. It’s saturated with bitter and ironic descriptions. It’s surely a political program. But at a certain point, Marx and Engels are simply obliged to drop the ironic mode (which is destructive) and turn to what you’re describing as putting forward their own politics or committing fully to the cause. This is the moment that interests you here? But I would think it’s mainly to be found within particular texts or oeuvres rather than between political positions.

    Anyway, thanks for the post–I’m always happy to read criticisms of The New Yorker.

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