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The Years with Ross (Perennial Classics) Paperback – December 26, 2000
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About the Author
James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894. Famous for his humorous writings and illustrations, he was a staff member of The New Yorker for more than thirty years. He died in 1961.
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The Years with Ross is all about James Thurber’s experience at The New Yorker when that magazine was being organized as something brand-new and completely different by a rather unexpected man, Harold Wallace Ross, who was its first editor. Thurber, of course, wrote for the magazine and drew a lot of the single-panel, one-liner cartoons it printed, so he was there when the magazine came into existence, and he knew Ross well, as did Dorothy Parker.
Parker’s review in very few sentences lets you know what an oddball Ross was. He was ignorant on a wide variety of subjects and he amazed people by what he didn’t know. However, when people told him about those things they considered common knowledge, Ross was all ears and always fascinated. Parker stated that Ross’s ignorance was a veritable Empire State Building among ignorances – if nothing else, you had to admire it for its size. She once took him to see a performance of Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. Not only had Ross never heard of the play, he’d never heard of Chekhov, yet he enjoyed the play, repeating throughout the evening, “This is quite a play! Quite a play!”
It is an interesting memoir by Thurber, beautifully written. It is telling, I think, that I couldn’t put this book down. I had to keep reading, because I found it as entertaining as any novel. Ross had virtually no budget when he started his magazine. The funding he’d organized was wholly inadequate and they had not nearly enough office space for what needed to be done, yet it somehow got done and The New Yorker became a resounding success and still exists today. (Parker, who was famous for her wisecracks, once was asked by Ross why she was late handing in her copy and she replied, “Someone else was using the pencil.”)
Thurber wrote this book in his final years, after his eyesight had failed completely. I think he must have dictated his copy for transcription by typists. However he did it, the results are excellent. If you’re a fan of The New Yorker, I think you’ll be as fascinated as I was to read about how the whole thing began and the unlikely man whose brainchild it was. It was definitely worth my time.
Because each chapter began life as a magazine article, the narrative is a bit jumpy, which makes it a little hard to follow the development of the "New Yorker" or Ross's career as an editor. By and large, I found the book an enjoyable and an interesting account of Harold Ross's rather eccentric editorial style. It also provides a picture of a bygone era in magazine publishing and in the literary life of New York City. There is a fair amount of the patented Thurber humor, but the majority of the book is a more or less straight account of Ross and the magazine. Most of the anecdotes are interesting, some -- such as the account of Ross's final days -- are poignant, and a few -- such as an account of a dinner party with Ross and H. L. Mencken -- are clinkers. Thurber was near the end of his life, blind, and apparently suffering from a brain tumor when he wrote this book, which may explain the relatively sober tone compared with some of his fiction.
It's probably worth mentioning that although I'm not an expert on this subject, my impression is that many people think that Thurber exaggerated Ross's eccentricities for effect. In any event, if you are a fan of the "New Yorker" or of James Thurber, you should find this book a worthwhile read.