Worth Reading: The Years with Ross by James Thurber

By: William Jackson
January 4, 2018

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After a couple of weeks of offering nineteenth century fiction in this column, I’m changing the pace this week with some twentieth century nonfiction. Although some critics contend that there is more than a little fiction in this classic memoir from James Thurber.

This is Thurber’s account of his working and personal relationship with Harold W. Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker magazine. Thurber’s image of Ross has become a staple of Americana: The unsophisticated editor who wanted to produce a little humor magazine and ended up creating a staple of American letters. The New Yorker over the last 90 years has showcased many preeminent American writers and cartoonists, Thurber among them. This book is the result of a series of article written by Thurber about his experiences since joining the New Yorker in 1927, two years after its founding, to Ross’s death in 1951.

Other writers from that period have criticized Thurber for exaggerating his importance at the magazine and for drawing a cartoonish picture of Ross. This book reportedly cost him some friends. But Thurber obviously has a deep affection for Ross and if you are interested in a good read, this fills the bill.

Sympathy for the editor

You don’t have to be a reader of the New Yorker to enjoy this book. In fact, if you aren’t familiar with the magazine this is a good introduction. I came across this book before I had read the magazine or I had even heard of Harold Ross. Something about the cover attracted me and I fell in love with it as soon as I began reading. Thurber’s account of his first meeting with Ross contains the only quote that, in 40 years of reporting and writing, has ever made me feel sorry for an editor:

“I never know where anybody is, and I can’t find out,” Ross said. “Nobody tells me anything. They sit out there at their desks, getting me deeper and deeper into God knows what.”

Ross at that time still was in the throes of creating a magazine that was at once lighthearted and sophisticated, literate without being serious. He knew what he wanted, but despite his success in creating it he had trouble articulating it.

Despite the sometimes clownish image Thurber paints of him, Ross was no fool. By the time he founded the New Yorker in 1925 he already was an experienced journalist and editor, having worked as a reporter for newspapers across the United States and in Panama and helping to found and edit the original Stars and Stripes in Europe during World War I. But there is no denying that Ross was colorful and full of contradictions, and he had a knack for surrounding himself with people who were just as colorful and talented.

The vicious circle

Strictly speaking, Ross was not a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table. He was too busy getting out a weekly magazine to have much time for long boozy lunches. But he knew most of this circle and many of them wrote for him occasionally, although not as often as he would have liked or needed, especially in the early years when he was getting the New Yorker off the ground. They show up in Thurber’s memoir, along with other staple New Yorker characters.

There have been many other books about the New Yorker and Ross, including a very good biography of Ross, Genius in Disguise, by Thomas Kunkel (more about this book in a later column), that tell a more complete story. But Thurber’s The Years with Ross paints a broad, thoroughly enjoyable picture of its subject and of the wild, wonderful world of New York in the early twentieth century, together with the wild, wonderful people who inhabited it.

There are plenty of editions of this book available, new and used. Ask your local bookstore or check out a copy at your local library.