More in Sorrow
by Wolcott Gibbs

Holt: New York, 1958

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
308 pages September 2005

From Time-Life to the New Yorker

The collection More in Sorrow contains thirty-five essays, profiles, parodies, and stories by Wolcott Gibbs. All but two originally appeared in the New Yorker, beginning in 1929. Generally I value the stories least, so I'll highlight here some of the others.

After an original Foreword, More in Sorrow leads off with a literary bang. In 1934 Henry Luce's Fortune magazine ran a profile of the New Yorker. The latter magazine retaliated with Gibbs' immediately famous parody, "Time... Fortune... Life... Luce". The Timestyle may have been muted in after years, but this piece is a classic, still with the power to make us stop and think about journalistic presentation. My father, also, always rated this essay a highlight of critical writing, containing one of his favorite lines. In Timestyle, Gibbs says, "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind."

Among the fine literary parodies is one I take separate note of: "Topless in Ilium".

James Thurber provides background on the glory days of the New Yorker, including Wolcott Gibbs and the above essay, in his memoir The Years with Ross.

From Woolcott to Dewey

"Big Nemo", a 45-page profile of another critic, Alexander Woolcott, is a pocket-battleship sort of biography, stuffed with entertaining literary anecdotes. (A different perspective is given by Harpo Marx in Harpo Speaks .) A sample anecdote involves Woolcott being in the U.S. Army in France about the beginning of 1918, when he has a chance to transfer to the Army's newspaper Stars and Stripes in Paris; luckily he's allowed to write the official response as he wishes:

"Sergeant Woolcott had done magnificent work here," wrote Sergeant Woolcott after a moment's thought, "but can be spared."

In contrast — one wonders anew at the human pageant — is "St. George and the Dragnet", a profile of Thomas E. Dewey, New York hounder of the underworld, and Republican Presidential candidate in 1944 and 1948.

From Benchley back around to Gibbs

In still greater contrast, "Robert Benchley: In Memoriam" is a thoughtful and moving tribute to one of the glorious and gentle humorists. I quote Gibbs on Benchley's style in Speaking through Texts , and here's an evocative passage on a foundation of Benchley's character:

I have used the word "courteous" before, but it seems inevitable. He was one of the most courteous men I ever knew, in the sense that whenever he was aware of a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy in anyone he met, he was automatically their genial, admiring ally against the world. It committed him to a great many bores and some men and women who used him rather shamelessly, and he knew it all right, but he was helpless. Perhaps it was a price he had agreed with himself to pay for the luxury of knowing that he had failed very few people in kindness.

Courtesy is of course an explicit component of chivalry , and reasonably of civility also. Courtesy as a style of behavior is too easily misunderstood or trivialized. Benchley is an interesting exemplar of this humour of man's character.

"The Secret Life of Myself" (in the swirling cloak of Walter Mitty) brings Gibbs himself on stage as suffering theatergoer becoming Superhero of the Theater, rescuer of plays. This builds off the previous entry, "Ring Out, Wild Bells", a reminiscence of a childhood role as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. These are very funny.

Even slighting the stories, this is a very worthwhile collection: considerable wit and humor as well as some insightful profiles.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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