Here at The New Yorker
Brendan Gill
Random 406 pp. $12.95

Thurber: A Biography
Burton Bernstein
Dodd 532 pp. $15.00

What Gill brings to his personal history in Here at The New Yorker is best self-characterized: “I will try to cram these paragraphs full of facts and give them a weight and shape no greater than that of a cloud of blue butterflies.” And of his personal via media: “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, although it is often hard and terrible. And saying that, I am prompted to add what follows out of it: that since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable tragedy of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.”

By flourishing this no-fault policy, Gill may intend to refute in advance charges ranging from superficiality to superciliousness. But the airy disclaimer is all wind and no rain—and these are stormy times, as The New Yorker has so admirably recognized. For thirty years now, the magazine has been more than aware, to paraphrase Pablo Casals, that if we’re not our brother’s keeper, we better damn well realize that we’re our brother’s brother. A number of critics, and not just Polonian finger waggers, have already hit Gill’s noli me tangere pose. Most effective has been Michael Wood in The New York Review of Books. In what strikes me as a finely balanced evaluation of the book, Wood says that “Gill’s poise and considerable honesty seem inseparable from smugness.” A deja vu note pops up here. Critics have cudgeled this stance, and Wood is reasoned and restrained in reproving Gill for his thinness. But reading Wood’s long, careful reservations, I suddenly remembered Ross’ pithy summation, quoted in the book, “The trouble with Gill is he hasn’t suffered enough.” If Ross had ever set up as an analyst, he probably could have completed an analysand’s therapy for about twelve bucks.

To read the rest of this essay—and access digital editions of our entire print archive—become a member.