“The problem, of course,” David Halberstam once wrote, “is that good writing demands irreverence, skepticism, a certain edge.” The peaceful, content and kind, in other words, can do something else. Which is a fine way to introduce Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, one of the great curmudgeonly scribblers of the now passed American century.
Here is Gibbs, in 1940, writing about the presidential candidate Thomas Dewey: “His chauffeur, who used to have a job driving an old lady around, is right at home with him.” This is Gibbs, in 1956, reviewing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “All I can say, in a critical sense, is that I have seldom seen such meager moonshine stated with such inordinate fuss.” In 1945, Gibbs described the Hollywood film-scape as “an astounding parody of life devoted to a society in which anything is physically and materially possible, including perfect happiness, to a race of people who operate intellectually on the level of the New York Daily News, morally on that of Dayton, Tennessee, and politically and economically in a total vacuum.” In a takedown of TIME in 1936, Gibbs wrote of the magazine’s irreproachable founder, Henry Luce, that he “stutters in conversation, never in speechmaking.” Check, please.
There are hundreds of such gems contained in the new 667-page anthology, Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker, which was published this month by Bloomsbury, long overdue and just in time. It is a marvelous tour of another era of magazine writing, before Mailer, Didion, Capote and Wolfe transformed the medium with literary ambition and electric Kool-Aid. Gibbs was of an older guard, a child of the American aristocracy, overeducated and self-hating in his own way, who found a calling putting others in their place with uncommon edge. Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, said of the man, “Maybe he doesn’t like anything, but he can do everything.” He could also drink it, dying from his appetites at the age of 56.
So do yourself a favor, and buy the book. The one-paragraph 1940 Talk of the Town collected on page 41 is itself worth the cover price. It recounts the story of a Nebraska farmer, hit in the foot by a piece of hot metal, which had fallen from the sky. The farmer sends the specimen off to the American Meteorite Laboratory in Denver to divine its origin, enraging Gibbs. “In this tiny episode,” Gibbs writes, “we see somehow a symptom of what is wrong with the times. A simple man, ploughing his field, gets a clear sign from heaven. His grandfather would have accepted the miracle at face value, as a divine warning or prophesy.” Gibbs concludes, “Occasionally, at times like these, we understand dimly what the clergy is up against. We don’t envy them.” The hunk of falling rock becomes, at Gibbs’ typewriter, a 200-word defense of wonder, which remains simply wonderful more than 70 years later.
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