cast of characters book coverReviewed by Kate Schefer

I am familiar with The New Yorker, and I am familiar with E.B. White and James Thurber and a few of the other writers who were the publication’s founding voices. But I am not familiar with how the two created and influenced each other. Or at least I wasn’t until I read Cast of Characters by Thomas Vinciguerra. Originally intended as a biography of Wolcott Gibbs, the book developed into a retelling of the formative years of The New Yorker, highlighting its founders, their lives, and their iconic work. I could tell that the main focus was to be Gibbs, as the book began and ended with anecdotes about him, and his son Tony was Vinciguerra’s primary source. But I believe the book struck a good balance between Gibbs and his counterparts.

Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, in response to a lack of sophisticated humor magazines, and ones targeted to a specific audience: the educated and social Manhattanite. He sought to speak to the peculiarities and conditions of life in the city, and he recruited (and kept) only those writers who could convey them. Working at the magazine, even in its early stages, wasn’t easy, and Ross was frequently quoted as saying, “I am firing you because you are not a genius.” His standards were high, his editing rigorous, and his sense of humor cultivated. He demanded the same of his staff, which led to the fostering of strong relationships with the book’s main characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White (who married fiction editor Katherine Angell), and James Thurber. They were all excellent writers and artists in their own right, but they were also the first to give The New Yorker its trademark vision, voice, and vigor.

A writer who struggled with alcoholism and reconciling the success of his early work, Gibbs is a strong example of the kind of employees that The New Yorker attracted. Vinciguerra’s extremely detailed account of the first 25 years of the publication showed the writers and editors at their highest and lowest points, giving insight to the lives behind the words. Many of them battled addictions, mental illnesses, and physical ailments that would’ve stopped most people from doing anything, let alone producing some of the best satires, cartoons, and observations of that time. Gibbs had his drinking, Thurber his blindness, McKelway his multiple personality disorder, and White his escape to rural Maine; but they all were adamant in contributing to the magazine that had encouraged and published them at the beginning of their careers. The unique parameters of The New Yorker office were brought to life by Vinciguerra, who took care to put familiar anecdotes into a greater context.

In general, this was a dense book, and a slower read, but I enjoyed it because it meant I was learning everything I possibly could about the history of The New Yorker, from its inception to the Cold War. In addition, the reader is given a rare glimpse of the elucidating backstories of its main contributors. From their earliest school days to their deaths, Ross and his writers are immortalized in Vinciguerra’s narrative. The New Yorker has been the subject of countless nonfiction accounts, but I can’t help but think that Cast of Characters is by far the most comprehensive and accessible of the lot. Organized into chapters with clear focuses (WWII coverage, mental illness, editorial style and voice, outside pursuits, theater reviews, etc.), the plot avoids meandering, while still covering a range of topics and progressing in mostly chronological order. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not usually a seeker of nonfiction stories, but I remained interested and engaged throughout, and that’s the mark of a solid biography. Often humorous, occasionally emotional, and always educational, Cast of Characters is a must-read for anyone wondering how such a ubiquitous publication could emerge from relatively humble and innocent intentions.

Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.