A Last Look at the Books We Can’t Forget

By Mike Feinsilber

Rounding out our series of postings about journalists and the books that influenced them, Jack Limpert and Mike Feinsilber give their choices. Without either knowing it, both selected books in which James Thurber was involved.

Jack Limpert’s picks

For a window into how editors work and think, two very good books are Editor of Genius, by W. Scott Berg, a biography of the great book editor Max Perkins, and Genius in Disguise, by Thomas Kunkel, about Harold Ross, the longtime editor of the New Yorker. Also worth reading: Yours in Truth, a recent book by Jeff Himmelman about Ben Bradlee that captures the great strengths and weaknesses of the legendary Washington Post editor.

Two books about editors that haven’t been written: Good biographies of Harold Hayes, who made the Esquire magazine of the 1960s into the most provocative and enjoyable magazine I’ve ever read, and Clay Felker, who made the New York magazine of the late ’60s and early ’70s a great read. I’ve looked at three books about Esquire and none begin to capture the genius of Hayes. Felker didn’t have Hayes’s creativity but his story could tell a lot about how journalism began to change in the 1970s and how a really good editor can overreach and burn out.

A book that had a big impact on how I worked with writers was Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner. A Harvard psychologist, Gardner explored how a better understanding of intelligence could improve the nation’s schools, and for me it opened up new ways to think about how the talents of writers can be so different. I always figured an editor’s job was to seek out writing talent, provide money and encouragement, and try to match a writer with the kind of subjects that would bring out the best in him or her. In almost 50 years of editing, the most fun was seeing a writer do a great story and feeling that because I had some understanding of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses maybe I helped a little.

Limpert realized when he semi-retired after 40 years as editor of The Washingtonian magazine that he had stories about being an editor he wanted to share. So he returned to the keyboard and started this website, About Editing and Writing. His journalism career began when he dropped out of Stanford Law School in 1960 to go to work in the Minneapolis bureau of United Press International, rewriting stories that were written for newspapers so they could be used in newscasts by radio and TV stations in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The bureau chief’s first piece of advice to the newcomer: “Whatever you do, don’t f— up the livestock report.” After working in the St. Louis and Detroit bureaus of UPI, he moved to newspapers and in 1969 became editor of The Washingtonian.

Mike Feinsilber’s picks

Feinsilber claims his journalism career began in the fifth grade when he was seduced by a book that’s barely known these days. He writes:  It was a strange book for an 11-year-old. I found it on the shelves of the Monroe County Public Library in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and soaked it up. When I finished the 873-page Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, my life’s course was fixed: Like Steffens,  I would be a news person. Steffens, born to wealth the year after the Civil War ended, became a crusading journalist—a “muckraker”—who exposed political corruption, corporate monopolies, and the brutal conditions in which Americans lived and worked. He came to know presidents, ward heelers, czars, dictators, bohemians, corporate barons, Communists, artists. After a visit to revolutionary Russia, he spoke eight words that haunted him for the rest of his life, “I have seen the future and it works!”

His book was heady stuff for a kid, and I responded by establishing a typewritten carbon-paper newspaper, The Daily Stink, which circulated among fellow 5th graders.  I had seen my future and it worked. If you’re intrigued, Peter Harshorn has written I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens which New York Times reviewer Kevin Baker called “prodigiously researched, fantastically interesting and extremely well written.”

“Why is it”, demanded the cartoonist, “that you reject my work and publish drawings by a fifth-rate artist like Thurber?” Ross came quickly to my defense like the true friend and devoted employer he is. “You mean third-rate”, he said quietly…

That passage is by James Thurber, talking about a conversation between Harold Ross and a rejected cartoonist. Ross was the awkward, unsophisticated, shy, ill-educated country boy from Colorado who in 1925 founded what became of the most sophisticated, literate, stylish, and essential magazines ever, the New Yorker. Ross was also awfully funny, unintentionally, one thinks. Thurber was associated with Ross and the magazine almost from the creation.

Thurber, as writer and cartoonist, was wickedly funny. The Years With Ross, the book Thurber wrote in his 60s, is a biography of the man and the magazine. It is the book I’d recommend  to anyone starting in the business or wishing to. It is life-expanding. I read it every few years.

Ross brought to the magazine and introduced to America such notable writers as E. B. White, John O’Hara, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, John Hersey and Thurber himself. Thurber joined up in 1927 and for the rest of his life most of his drawings and much of his humor were first published in the magazine. Read it and you learn a lot about editing and why every comma counts. Ross insisted that every word in the magazine had to be clear, precise, exact, just right. You’ll learn a lot about Thurber too.

One more Thurber-Ross story. Thurber’s cartoons are so good that everyone knows some of them. The caption alone brings the drawing into your mind. (“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”) One Thurber cartoon shows a husband introducing his wife to another man. In the room is an oversized bookcase and crouching on top of it is a naked woman wearing a frown.The husband says, “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.”

The cartoon bewildered Ross. Thurber tells what happened:  “He called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.’

“After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours. ‘So, Ross,’ I said, ‘she must be alive.’

“‘Well then,’ he said, ‘what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?’

“I told him he had me there.”

Feinsilber, moving on from The Daily Stink, joined UPI just out of college, spent 20 years there, joined the AP, retired, returned as writing coach, re-retired and discovered a need to blog.

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