Obituary: William Shawn
Thursday 10 December 1992
IF THE first editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, established it as the United States' most entertaining magazine, his successor William Shawn made it the country's most influential. Under his editorship, the magazine became a cultural institution, a symbol of wit (and wealth), intelligence, and sophistication unparalleled by any other American publication. During Shawn's 35 years as editor, few American writers of note would have preferred to have their work appear elsewhere.
Though famous for his extreme shyness and almost patrician courtesy, Shawn was born in the rough-and-tumble environs of Chicago, where his father Benjamin Chon was a storekeeper. Shawn later explained his change of surname by saying he had grown tired of being taken for a Chinaman. Like so many of the New Yorker's staff in its early years, Shawn really only came into his own after entering the magazine's portals - then as now on West 43rd Street, Manhattan. His earlier incarnations included a truncated career as a student at the University of Michigan, a brief and improbable stint as a reporter in Las Vegas, and an unsuccessful attempt to make a living as a musician in Depression-era New York.
Once at the New Yorker, however, Shawn flourished; after apprenticing as an editor under the benign influence of St Clair McKelway, Shawn replaced him in 1939 as managing editor of the 'fact' side of the magazine. His tenure there helped establish the magazine's virtual obsession with accuracy, embodied most obviously in its famous fact-checking department (satirised as the 'Department of Verification' in Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City).
By the time Ross died in 1951, Shawn was established as his inevitable, if inconspicuous, successor, and although he had the greatest respect for his predecessor, Shawn rapidly brought to the magazine a new seriousness. This was done without sacrificing the humour - cartoons and light prose sketches - for which the magazine had rightly become famous. The 1960s in particular revealed a new politicism in the New Yorker's pages; during the height of the Vietnam War the topical reports on the doings of Gotham that opened the 'Talk of the Town' section at the front of the magazine were supplemented by commentary strongly against the war. Lengthy pieces of reporting now featured more prominently, and several classics of the New Journalism first appeared in the magazine's pages, most notably Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
During the 1960s and 1970s there was an especially notable wealth and diversity of talent: reporting from John McPhee, Daniel Lang and Roger Angell, fiction by John Updike and John Cheever, poetry by WH Auden and James Merrill, cartoons by Steinberg, Steig and Koren, reviews by Edmund Wilson and Pauline Kael were among its distinguished contributions. The magazine's large circulation helped attract such talent; so did its unrivalled fiscal generosity which was characteristic of Shawn's near-reverence for writers and writing.
Inevitably the magazine had its detractors, especially those of egalitarian bent who were dismayed by its open elitism, and a pride in the sophistication of both its contributors and readership that could verge on complacent smugness. Often, too, its contents were predictable and unadventurous, notably in its fiction of recent years. Perhaps because of a certain staleness, a change in editorship followed two years after the Newhouse family acquired the magazine in 1985. Robert Gottlieb, a distinguished book editor at Knopf, was appointed editor in Shawn's place in January 1987 and received a letter signed by 154 New Yorker writers and contributors - including the reclusive JD Salinger - calling on him to withdraw. Gottlieb declined to withdraw, but as editor made few changes of substance and, to most readers, no improvements. Readership declined, the magazine began to acquire a certain dinosaur quality that the introduction of some new young writers failed to dispel. Tina Brown's appointment as editor earlier this year has resulted in greater editorial departures, but it remains unclear whether her advent will signal a revitalisation of the magazine or merely a vulgarisation.
After leaving the magazine's helm Shawn worked as a special editor for the distinguished literary publisher Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Yet there could be no question that he sorely missed the New Yorker; the palpable decline of the magazine since his departure in 1987 shows that the New Yorker missed him.
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