In 1993, when The New Yorker for the first time ran a photograph of a bare-breasted actress, a subscriber wrote me to express outrage at what had happened to a magazine once known for its elegant, understated prose. The only defence I could think of was that they were small breasts, so you could say that the tradition of understatement was still alive. But then I started wondering, "Why did she write me?" Was she implying that it was because of people like me that a once high-minded magazine had come to this?
I should explain.
My father and William Shawn, the second editor of The New Yorker, were born within six months of each other, in the first decade of the 20th century, and they had an identical abhorrence of language that was obscene or off-colour or crude. At his most exasperated, my father would say, "For cryin' out loud." When I was a child, in Kansas City, I thought "for cryin' out loud" was the oath grownups reserved for particularly dire circumstances. Even after I learned some more offensive phrases, I would have never used them in my father's presence, and I suppose I assumed, when I joined The New Yorker in 1963, that I wouldn't use them in Mr. Shawn's magazine, which was thought of as strait-laced even by the standards of the period.
I think the first time it occurred to me that Mr. Shawn and I might have some problems about language was in 1965. I had done a piece on the research in dreaming sleep, and it included the fact that cats deprived of dreams seemed intent on mounting other cats. As we were closing the piece, my editor said that Mr. Shawn, without insisting, was wondering if we might use a euphemism for "mount." I said, "What did he have in mind?" And the editor said, "Made a sexual advance toward."
"But it's a cat!" I said. "We're talking about a cat!" We stuck with "mount."
Not long after that, I wrote what The New Yorker then called a "casual," a short piece of humour, and one of its inventions was a Harlem maternity dress store called Mother Jumpers. Roger Angell, who was then a fiction editor, said he wanted to buy the piece but Mr. Shawn would never let the term "mother jumpers" in the magazine.
When I talked to Mr. Shawn about it, I pointed out that "mother jumpers" was itself a euphemism. He was not impressed by that argument. There was an easy way out of the impasse, and I took it: I peddled the casual, intact, to another magazine.
But our differences couldn't be taken care of that easily when the offending word was in a piece of reporting. In 1967, I began travelling the country for a series called "U.S. Journal" – a piece from somewhere in America every three weeks – and one of the first stories was about Lester Maddox, then the governor of Georgia, and his campaign to bring virtue of the no-drinking, no-blasphemy, no miniskirt variety to the statehouse.
I had written that, apparently forgetting about his campaign, Mr. Maddox had said the federal government could take its education money and "ram it." Mr. Shawn said no to "ram it." I went in to see him. I said I had no burning desire to get dirty words into The New Yorker. What he was telling me, though, was that I had to stop listening when the other reporters were allowed to keep listening, and I didn't know if I could do that. Finally, he said he'd think it about it overnight.
I went home and poured myself a large scotch and told my wife that I didn't know what I would do if the answer the next morning was no. I had enormous respect for William Shawn. I even respected his resistance to unseemly language. My argument about other magazines having carried the Maddox quote had not cut any ice, because he didn't care what other magazines did. Also I loved doing "U.S. Journal." But how could I justify withholding something that was relevant – even something silly that was relevant – from the readers? It was conceivable that The New Yorker and I would come to a parting of the ways over "ram it" – a relatively inoffensive phrase uttered by a man who was, to use a word Mr. Shawn probably wouldn't have allowed in the magazine either, a pissant. The next morning, Mr. Shawn phoned me and said that "ram it" could be in the magazine.
I know what you analytically inclined Easterners are thinking. I did have a burning desire to get unseemly language into The New Yorker because I was acting out against my father, whom I deeply resented for sleeping with my mother. People from Kansas City don't hold with that sort of thinking, and, in defence of our way of seeing things, I just might mention that Mr. Shawn and I didn't have another confrontation over language for 17 years.
When we did, it was around the time The New Yorker was, as the Wall Street people say, in play, and rumours that it might be sold by the Fleischmann family were causing great nervousness in the halls. A farmer in Nebraska had pulled a gun on a couple of deputies who had come to repossess some of his farm equipment, and he eventually found himself inside his house surrounded by the Nebraska State Police SWAT team. Talking on the phone with the SWAT team negotiator, the farmer suddenly shouted, "It's the goddamned fucking Jews." As my story went on to explain, he had fallen into the hands of some prairie fascists who were then preying on farmers with economic problems. When my editor read that quote he said something like "You've got to be kidding!" or "Lotsa luck on that one."
I said I felt I had to talk to Mr. Shawn about the quote, which was vital to my story, although I knew he had a lot on his plate and I wasn't going to get on my high horse if he said no. Mr. Shawn asked about the possibility of a euphemism. I told him that the quote was from a state police transcript. We talked about other options for a while, and finally he said, "Just go ahead and use it." I mumbled something and backed slowly out of the office, thinking that if I made an abrupt move, he might change his mind. The quote appeared in The New Yorker the next week, and I'm happy to say nobody seemed to notice.
These days, of course, such words do not draw attention, and, as a reporter, I'm grateful for having no restrictions on what I can listen to or look at. In a recent piece I did about a shooting in southwestern Kansas, one of the people involved had among his tattoos not only a life-sized hangman's noose that encircled his neck and ran down his chest but also a word on the inside of each bicep that, when he assumed a strongman's pose, combined to say, "Fuck You." It was a detail I couldn't have left out, particularly because he struck the strongman's pose for the final time a few seconds before he was shot to death. Still, when I'm in my own voice rather than, say, quoting somebody or somebody's tattoos, I would never use offensive language in The New Yorker. I've always known that my father and Mr. Shawn would disapprove.