When nostalgia sufferers start on the topic of How Much Better Things Used To Be, I am most likely to smile and nod blandly while scanning the room for an avenue of escape, possibly an open window that my body might easily pass through. Though I admit that, yes, occasionally I feel we are headed for the New Dark Ages—dark, that is, except for the faint blue glow of a billion smartphones. And I do sometimes pine for the days of Harold Ross’ New Yorker, which came out once a week, full of surprise and delight, featuring the greatest writers who ever wrote in American English.
I have at hand a rather battered copy of The New Yorker for March 4, 1944. Credited writers include S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, Shirley Jackson, Wolcott Gibbs, and Edmund Wilson. (Presumably E.B. White and James Thurber were in the office on West 43rd St., contributing uncredited “Talk” pieces.) It’s almost impossible for me to fathom all that shimmering literary brilliance in one place at the same time. What wouldn’t I give to spend half an hour chatting with any of those giants?
I have to shake myself out of my anachronalgic stupor. (Anachronalgic, adj.: Characterized by a wistful longing for a past one could not possibly have experienced.) Yes, Ross and his crew managed to publish weekly masterpieces with no help but H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage and a linotype machine. But they appear to tower only because we crouch.
We possess the miracle of Google and the wonder of Wikipedia, as well as the twin troves of Facebook and Twitter to trawl for jokes to pass off as our own. We may look up anything effortlessly and instantaneously and receive possibly accurate information. Yet we crouch, and we slouch—and our writing (and thinking) seem only to get worse. Collectively, we’ve got a severe case of Feckless Insouciance, and the prognosis isn’t good. We’re alternately shrill and lethargic, and cleave to theories and agendas that best suit our personal Paths of Least Resistance. (And the computer thingy will fix the spelling and syntax as our mental ruts deepen.)
Actually, there were no “giants in those days” to which we must invidiously compare ourselves. We really have no excuse not to be excellent. Writing well is still possible—though it’s hard whether we write with a fountain pen, a Remington Model 16, or a computer. The more we write, it’s still difficult—but we write faster and better as we work at it. (I’ve been at it now for—a while.)
Rather than reliably churning out literary genius on a weekly basis, I publish a monthly jazz paper and I’m doing the best job I possibly can. I trust there will be a noticeable improvement in quality over time. Even so, I am determined to make each issue of The Syncopated Times a source of surprise and delight for all who turn its pages.