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By Janet Groth. Algonquin Books. 320 pages. $21.95
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Memoirs appeal to us primarily for two reasons. They provide first-hand accounts of events and places, a form of history. They also reveal the author’s thinking, a type of self-analysis and personal history. Janet Groth’s memoir, “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by title suggests a bit of both. However, we are left disappointed by her descriptions of life at The New Yorker, while the depiction of her education, broadly defined, proves more worthwhile.
In the spring of 1957, Groth, a hopeful writer, had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and, through a fortuitous contact, landed a job at The New Yorker. An interview with E.B. White, the author of “Charlotte’s Web” among other important works, led to her assignment as the receptionist on the 18th floor for a group of significant New Yorker writers and cartoonists. She held this position for 21 years from 1957 to 1978, never advancing or becoming the writer she dreamed of being.
The New Yorker, since its founding by Harold Ross in 1925, has become an American icon of literary culture and urban sophistication. So much so, in fact, that in 1965 Tom Wolfe felt compelled to satirize its self-proclaimed but to him embalmed prominence in a two-part essay “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” Wolfe’s professed focus was the magazine’s celebrated editor, William Shawn, but he poked fun at every aspect of the magazine and the American cultural void it supposedly filled. The debate has continued ever since.
Groth often mentions Shawn, who served as editor from 1951 to 1987, and other writers, including Lillian Ross, with whom Shawn had an ongoing affair (see Ross’ memoir “Here but Not Here: A Love Story” published 1998). Groth also provides a lengthy description of her relationship with the Scottish writer Muriel Spark, author of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” who for a time was headquartered at The New Yorker.
Her most successful reminiscence comes in the chapter on the troubled poetic genius of John Berryman, “Homage to Mr. Berryman.” He also had taught at the University of Minnesota during the period Groth was a student: “I took every course he offered.” This chapter, in fact, had been previously published and won honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize in 2008.
For the most part, however, these specifically New Yorker incidents in Groth’s memoir, which because of her title we anticipate with great expectations, seem trivial. She tends to provide catalogs of names and physical descriptions of people without real examination. The importance of The New Yorker as a literary journal remains unexplored. Groth’s prose in these sections lacks vitality and seems mechanical. It comes across as too filtered, removed from the experiences rather than revealing it.
Early in the memoir, Groth mentions the occasion of a meeting with one of her former professors, Morgan Blum. After reading her novel in progress, on which she had been working when she first came to The New Yorker, he expresses considerable dissatisfaction: “Now you are not only smoking with a cigarette holder, you are writing with one.” The observation still holds.
The real story in this memoir and its most powerful moments relate to Groth’s education, her search for identity over this 21-year period and beyond. We learn that working at The New Yorker gave her time to travel — she took full advantage of that opportunity — and to pursue an advanced degree in modern British and American literature at New York University. She left The New Yorker to take an assistant professor position at the University of Cincinnati.
Much of the travel writing here proves especially engaging, and two of the final chapters, “Greece: The Journey Out,” and “Greece: The Journey In,” draw us into her evolving identity crisis. She confronts the many personal and professional issues involved with being a woman living and working in 1960s and ’70s America. Had The New Yorker, in fact, exploited her?
This memoir might better have been titled “The Receptionist: Claiming an Education While at The New Yorker,” to recast the poet Adrienne Rich’s statement about the need for women to “claim” an education.
As Groth states upon leaving, “I was no longer dependent upon the New Yorker mantle of borrowed fame to find a sense of my own worth.”
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