Accidental Critic: Cast of Characters


Cast of Characters caught my eye in the bookstore a few months ago, but I passed it by because the time wasn’t right. Having just recently finished re-reading one of my favorite E.B. White essay collections a couple of weeks ago, it was time.

Thomas Vinciguerra’s Cast of Characters examines, as its subtitle promises, “Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker.'” Vinciguerra started out researching what he thought was going to be a biography of (Oliver) Wolcott Gibbs, who was one of the first writers Harold Ross brought on staff at The New Yorker in the 1920s and who filled myriad writing and editing roles there, ultimately making his biggest name as the magazine’s theatre critic. I, for one, am glad that Vinciguerra expanded the book’s scope. Gibbs is interesting, but the broad range of personalities that made The New Yorker into the cultural icon it became is much richer material.

As a lifelong reader and fan of White, I already knew many of these names and some of their writings. From White and his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, to Thurber, Charles Addams, John O’Hara, John Hersey, and many others, it’s hard to imagine a reader who hasn’t. But I knew few details of their time together and perhaps fewer of the stories that create the vastly rich fabric that is New Yorker history and lore.

Cast of Characters doesn’t disappoint in providing these. I found myself laughing out loud and reading lengthy passages to my husband, a humorist who knows the work of Thurber and Addams well, but, like me, did not know this literary history. Vinciguerra has done a wonderful job of painting both the personalities that made up The New Yorker‘s early staff and the working relationships among them that helped give the magazine not only its voice but also its force, value, and staying power.

There’s a slow section in the middle of the book, where Vinciguerra follows the private lives and career trajectories of these writers, artists, and editors after the magazine had fully established itself and they started to pursue other interests. The book’s strength comes from connecting the individuals with and through the magazine, much as the magazine thrived under the combined forces of their personalities. It loses some of its urgency as it becomes a recounting of the individual lives mid-way through. But it comes back around. I found the history of the World War II-era magazine almost as compelling as the earliest days, and it was utterly heartbreaking to read White’s eulogies of his old friends and colleagues as they died away before him near the end.

The book left me with new additions to my “future reading” list. Most notably, I hope to track down Gibbs’s 1936 profile of Henry R. Luce, which ran in The New Yorker as “Time…Fortune…Life…Luce.” The stories behind its publication, and excerpts from the article itself, left me laughing so hard I could barely read them aloud.

The need to read passages aloud to share with friends and loved ones is one of my measures of a good book. So is the amount of future reading it suggests. Cast of Characters didn’t fail me on either count.

Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.