Old New Yorker writers never die, they just keep being republished in shiny new editions. In 1939, Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, sent A.J. Liebling, then a new staff writer, to Paris to cover the war, and over the next five years Liebling wrote a regular “Letter from Paris” for the magazine. Many of these letters were later published in book form as The Road Back to Paris (1944), one of the three books included in World War II Writings (Library of America), an omnibus volume that also contains Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), Normandy Revisited (1958) and twenty-six other previously unpublished pieces from The New Yorker. Liebling was a keen observer of everything and everyone around him, and he had a good ear for dialogue. Even the minor figures are vivid, such as Mac, the night porter described as “gaunt, yellow-toothed, limber, and rebellious. He was part Irish, part Canadian, and all Cockney; he played the races, horse and dog, every day and usually came on duty conscious and self-controlled.” It’s much more fun to read this first-hand account of the war and its aftermath observed from ground level than a professional historian’s account, written decades after the fact. I am a big fan of the Library of America, which offers volumes that are well edited, printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth. A note at the beginning of each book states that, thanks to support from various foundations and funds, “every volume in the series will be permanently available.” I’d love to see a Library of Canada built on this model; who would not choose a reasonably priced Smythe-sewn hardcover collection of (say) Margaret Laurence’s early works, over a mismatched set of paperbacks doomed to yellow and fall apart?
Joseph Mitchell is another staff writer from the New Yorker’s golden era under editor Harold Ross, and his work, along with that of his colleagues and contemporaries A.J. Liebling and E.B. White, is still in print. The Bottom of the Harbor, a collection of six New Yorker pieces (all of which connect to New York City’s waterfront), was first published in 1959 and has just been reissued by Pantheon—in hardcover, no less!—to mark the centennial of Mitchell’s birth. Of course this is the New York of two generations past, and to read these pieces in the early twenty-first century is to experience a feeling of being “unstuck in time.” In the title essay Mitchell describes the lives of the baymen, the men who (in 1951 at least) “work out of bays and inlets and inlets within inlets along the coasts of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens” in search of clams, eels and other fish. In “The Rivermen” we learn about the shad fishery that took place each spring in the small New Jersey communities that lined the west bank of the Hudson River, facing Manhattan. I suspect that much of what Mitchell documents in these essays has vanished from the New York of today, and there is a sense of mild melancholy about the writing, which suggests that Mitchell himself was well aware that he was documenting a way of life that was even then in decline.