Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wolcott Gibbs, Tragic New Yorker Virtuoso

The saddest author bio for a magazine editor to encounter is one that says “So-and-so is working on a biography of X,” especially if X is the subject of the article the bio is attached to. The only way to deal with a byline like that is to smile and say, well, fella, I sure hope that works out for you. Because nine times out of ten, it doesn’t.

Thomas Vinciguerra was “writing a biography of Wolcott Gibbs,” a star of the early New Yorker but now mostly forgotten, when he wrote this piece for the Weekly Standard in 2008. For all I know he still is. But, the timidity of publishing houses being what it is, the only Wolcott Gibbs project Vinciguerra has managed to get released so far is the new anthology, Backward Ran Sentences. That may seem like a meager pay-off for having given Gibbs a furnished room in his brain for the last five years, rent free. On the other hand, Vinciguerra’s publisher did let him rack up 688 pages, which is plenty for a minor writer sixty years dead, so at least his long devotion was not thwarted at absolutely every turn.

In this case, I really do hope his original project works out for him, because a biography of Wolcott Gibbs is something I would read. As far as I can tell from Vinciguerra’s biographical introduction, Gibbs suffered from an amplified case of almost every vice we would expect in a New York writer of the Dorothy Parker era: not just a smoker but a chainsmoker, not just an alcoholic but one who tended to pass out and have to be carried, not just a cynic but a sincere misanthrope who once wrote “I wonder if there is something the matter with me that I can’t like anybody for long.” He had not one unhappy marriage but three, and his second marriage ended with his wife throwing herself out a 17-story window.

In addition to having all the usual writerly problems to an unusual degree, Gibbs also had unusual problems, like being an editor. Spending too much time fixing other people’s work has never done a man’s own writing any good, which is why the literary pantheon probably has fewer editors than dentists. Gibbs overcame this handicap to become a wonderfully precise and readable stylist. On the other hand, he mentioned more than once in his theatre reviews that “there has scarcely been a play that I couldn’t imagine having written myself, suitably stimulated,” which is a very sad thought for a reviewer, and sadder but more inevitable coming from a frustrated professional editor.

Gibbs was also a gifted parodist, and sad editors and sad parodists tend to be gnawed at by the same thought: being able to imitate a genius is not the same as being one. Gibbs was already inclined to rate his talent pretty low, as a depressive, and the fact that he was more admired for his parodies than just about anything else must have been discouraging to him. (The title of Vinciguerra’s book comes from a Gibbs parody, his profile of Henry Luce, which is written in Time magazine’s trademark inverted syntax: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind . . . Where it will all end, knows God.”) This side of Gibbs reminds me of Peter Sellers, another depressed and much-married substance abuser with a dazzlingly versatile talent. Sellers personally suspected that his skill as a comic chameleon came from the fact that, underneath Inspector Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove, where a real person should have been, there was just a void. His friends wondered if there was a real Peter Sellers at all. I get the feeling Gibbs sometimes worried that, in his case, there was a void where there should have been a real author.

But that was just the depression talking. The man had talent, as you will see if you read this excerpt from one of his casual essays. The excerpt is twice as long as it should be, but the referee has decided to allow it on the grounds that half the length is justifiable to show Gibbs’s sparkling style, the other half to show the scope of his misanthropy, which was not a put-on for the sake of this particular piece:
In these perplexing days, when every man seems threatening to become my brother or better, almost my only comfort is in an anonymous English author, who, in 1841, wrote a little book called “Etiquette for Gentlemen: with Hints on the Art of Conversation,” published by Messrs. Tilt and Bogue of London. With his first sentences this nameless arbiter brings back to the world a forgotten order and security. 
Marvellously reassuring, for instance, to a man who had thought all privacy lost in the brotherhood of man is his comment in the chapter called “Introductions”: “You should not introduce anybody, even at his own request, to another, unless you are quite sure the acquaintance will be agreeable to the latter. A person does himself no service with another when he obliges him to know people he would rather avoid.” You didn’t, in this happy society, have to meet dull people; in fact, it was rather hard to get to meet anybody at all. “If in the course of a walk in company with a friend, you happen to meet, or are joined by an acquaintance, do not commit the too common, but most flagrant error, of introducing such persons to one another.” It is pleasant to think of this fashionable trio as they strolled through the town, Mr. A. irritably involved in two unrelated conversations as he struggled to avoid the flagrant error of introducing Mr. B. to Mr. C. 
The Master, however, goes even further. “Never introduce morning visitors, who happen to meet in your parlor without being acquainted, to one another,” he says. “If you should be so introduced, remember that the acquaintance afterwards goes for nothing; you have not the slightest right to expect that the other will again recognize you.” Here, of course, was the perfect escape from dismal fellowship: it seemed very unlikely that you’d ever be introduced to anybody, but even if you were it was presumably because of some flaw in your host’s breeding, and was much better ignored.
You can see why P.G. Wodehouse considered the New Yorker “the dullest bloody thing ever published . . . except for Wolcott Gibbs.”

Gibbs worked at the New Yorker right up until his death in 1958, but his output had been dwindling since the mid-1940s. Part of the reason was the magazine’s lurch toward seriousness and topicality (these were the days of the Hersey “Hiroshima” issue). “I had an idea humor was supposed to be against the rules around here,” Gibbs complained to E. B. White in 1947. “The moral climate is against it. Right at this moment there is a son of a bitch down the hall writing a thirty-two-part profile of Stalin.”

The last piece he ever wrote for the New Yorker, apart from his theatre column, was “A Fellow of Infinite Jest,” a story about a literary humorist’s wife and children commiserating over how poorly cast they are in the roles the humorist has forced upon them. The wife is not incompetent at balancing her checkbook, the daughter is not a vapid, gum-chewing teenybopper, the son is not a reactionary foil for his father’s progressive notions, but they feel bound to play these parts in order to provide their father with enough material to make his salary. They end up deciding to kill him for the insurance money.

This is where I’d be interested to hear Vinciguerra’s expert opinion. As a historian of the old New Yorker, Vinciguerra surely knows the story of Joseph Mitchell, who had a brilliant career at the magazine but came down with writer’s block in 1964, and from that day until his death in 1996 never published another word, despite coming into the office every day. I bet that Vinciguerra also knows the theory that Mitchell was ruined by his last project, Joe Gould’s Secret, a book about a Bowery bum named Joe Gould who claimed to be writing an “oral history of the United States,” which turned out to be completely imaginary. The theory is that Mitchell became fascinated (or tortured) by the idea that this fake writer could get all the perks of authorship without the hassle of writing anything.

Now, if “A Fellow of Infinite Jest” had been written at the start of Gibbs’s career, I wouldn’t necessarily interpret it as a farewell to humor writing or an obvious capstone like Joe Gould’s Secret. But around the time he wrote it, Gibbs was already starting to feel that he and the New Yorker were both winding down. “I seem to be wearing very thin as a writer and the theatre stuff I’m doing now would be embarrassing in the magazine we used to know.” For another thing, he had recently gotten a taste for warm, affectionate writing when he started a newspaper for his beloved home-away-from-home Fire Island — seemingly the only place where he was ever happy or relaxed — even having the paper take up civic causes like overfishing, dune protection, and the construction of more tennis courts. Very uncharacteristic behavior for a critic who was once compared to a boy who liked to tear the wings off flies, and possibly an indication that Gibbs was undergoing some kind of transformation. So maybe “A Fellow of Infinite Jest” really was Gibbs’s way of signing off. If Vinciguerra ever finishes his biography, I hope he can put together all the pieces of this final act.

In the meantime, demonstrate your interest to Bloomsbury Press and buy the book.

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