At last! I find myself poised to review this collection of profiles, reviews, parodies, and essays by one of The New Yorker’s most prolific, yet oft overlooked early contributors. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Wolcott Gibbs, a direct descendant of President Martin Van Buren and no relation whatsoever to fellow contributor Alexander Woollcott, applied a singular sharp-tongued wit to everything that he covered or created for The New Yorker.
This collection, released in October 2011 with a foreward by P.J. O’Rourke, weighs in at over 650 pages (of a moderately small typeface, I must add). I won’t go any further without saying that I LOVED the book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the “cosmopolitan sophistication” of the New Yorker (I was having trouble coming up with the right words, and “snooty and smart” doesn’t quite do the magazine justice. Thanks Wikipedia, for naming that intangible quality).
I should explain that this Librarything Early Reviewers selection arrived in November during the first wave of Christmas shopping, in a brown cardboard mailer. It was hastily mis-identified as a gift purchased for the boys and was whisked up to the attic, where it languished until Christmas Eve. Oops! Getting such a late start on a 650-page book explains why it’s just getting reviewed now.
Confidently claiming intellectually superior contributors and readership, Harold Ross’ New Yorker published, in 1936, a parody of Time magazine, written by Gibbs, which provides the title for this collection. In reference to the narrative structure employed by Time‘s writers, Gibb’s wrote, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”
Backward Ran Sentences is divided into seven “sections” – each representing a different “genre” of Gibbs’ writing for The New Yorker.
“The Editorial We” includes items from Talk of the Town, some of the sparest and most humorous “shorts” from Gibbs.
“Some Matters of Fact” is a collection of biographical profiles which, to Gibbs’ credit, is interesting and entertaining, in the current day, despite the fact that I’d never heard of the majority of his subjects (who were apparently big enough news at the time the profiles were written).
“They Write As I Please”, a collection of parodies, is probably the only section that I could have done without. Without a suitable depth of knowledge for the context in which they were conceived, I had little to no idea what most of them were about. Having said that, ample proof of Gibbs’ ability to write just about anything convinces me that his parodies were probably a real HOOT to the audience for which they were written.
“Some Troubles I’ve Seen” and “So-So Stories”, sections of humorous essays and short fiction, respectively, are, as a whole, well-written and highly entertaining. A few of my favorites were, “A Man May be Down” and “The Cat on the Roof”.
“Wounds and Decorations” is comprised of theater and movie reviews, and it is here that Gibbs’ wit is most acerbic. I had begun to think that he had never seen a performance that he enjoyed, when I realized that the first group of reviews were of productions whose names I didn’t recognize and whose time on the stage numbered in days, only. I was gratified to see that he raved about Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. These would have been the ORIGINAL productions, and these shows went on to be revived MANY times. Some now-“classics” that he panned at the time were Waiting for Godot, No Exit, and, of all things, the Disney movie, The Three Caballeros—- albeit with very convincing complaints.
One of the best pieces (and most indicative of Gibbs’ place in the history of The New Yorker) is presented in the afterward or “Coda” and is entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” (1936). Concise, practical, and entertaining, it should be read by aspiring contributors today!
My only suggestion to anyone reading Backward Ran Sentences would be to “take your time….” Reading too much of Wolcott Gibbs in one sitting can be a bit of a “witty” overload. It is, however, hard to put the thing down.