Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal called Vinciguerra's Gibbs collection "a marvelous tour of another era of magazine writing." Time's Michael Scherer suggested that readers "do yourself a favor and buy the book." In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review of Backward Ran Sentences -- "In his time there was scarcely anyone more skilled than Gibbs in the construction of English sentences. He was a master...Exceptional prose is far more of a rarity in journalism than most of us in the trade like to believe, so when it occurs it should be treasured and preserved."
|Wolcott Gibbs, 1950
Gibbs said that he could take on any subject except "women's fashions and horse racing." During his thirty years at The New Yorker he wrote for nearly every department of the magazine. He covered the press, nightlife, and books. He reviewed films, wrote fiction, and was for many years The New Yorker's chief drama critic. Selecting the best work from such a huge volume of material was a challenge. "I did want to include at least a few pieces from every major genre that Gibbs wrote in," Vinciguerra explained to TCR. "In the end, I was probably too liberal; the book came out to about seven-hundred pages. Still, I tried to be ruthless, and generally I included only work that in my biased opinion was superior or memorable. The exceptions were pieces that had some historic or novelty value like Gibbs’s very first published New Yorker item, which rendered certain Biblical episodes in tabloid headline form, and his review of the Abbott and Costello movie Here Come the Co-Eds."
|Charles Addams jacket illustration, 1958
As a young man he worked as a brakeman for the Long Island Railroad. Through the intercession of his cousin, the writer Alice Duer Miller, Gibbs got a job as a general reporter for a chain of small Long Island newspapers. In 1927, again with the help of Miller, he signed on with The New Yorker and never left it. "The New Yorker was his rock, and its staff members were the nuclear family he never had," Vinciguerra told TCR. "I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that [New Yorker founder] Harold Ross was his surrogate father, giving him the approval and encouragement he never quite got growing up."
More in Sorrow, a collection of his previously published essays, profiles, and fiction. The book's jacket illustration was by his friend Charles Addams.
In addition to writing millions of words over the years for The New Yorker, Gibbs served as an editor of fiction and non-fiction for the magazine, polishing the work F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and John Cheever, among others. O'Hara became a particular friend of Gibbs and borrowed Gibbs' name for the fictional "Gibbsville" location of many of his stories.
Vinciguerra's collection includes Gibbs' cranky but incisive "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles," thirty rules for editing which start with -- "Writers always use too damn many adverbs."
Gibbs is one the few major theater critics to write a successful play for Broadway. His comedy Season in the Sun, directed by his friend Burgess Meredith, about a writer and his family spending the summer on Fire Island, ran for the entire 1950-51 season.
Vinciguerra told TCR that he believes that Gibbs hasn't been as well remembered as other New Yorker writers of his time such as E.B. White and James Thurber "because he was so frequently biting and bitter. He wasn’t always that way; his positive reviews, much of his “Notes and Comment” oeuvre, and some of his short stories are quite poignant and heartfelt. And he was often just plain funny, as opposed to mocking. But Gibbs came alive most vividly when he was in attack mode, tearing something down. That kind of bile doesn’t always endear you to posterity...I compare Gibbs to Evelyn Waugh in terms of being an acquired taste."
|Gibbs (front, second from left) with Dorothy Parker, James Thurber (upper right) and others, 1938
|Playbill from Gibbs' Broadway hit, 1950
Vinciguerra has begun a second book on Gibbs. Its working title is Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of the New Yorker. Vinciguerra says "isn't so much a biography of Gibbs so much as it is a collective portrait of him and his 'circle,' with Gibbs firmly in the center."
Here's more information --
"Q&A: Thomas Vinciguerra on Wolcott Gibbs." The New Yorker, 11 October 2011.
"There at The New Yorker: The Wit and Wisdom of Wolcott Gibbs." The Weekly Standard. 12 December 2011.
Rediscovering The New Yorker's Wolcott Gibbs. Talk at the New School with Thomas Vinciguerra, Kurt Andersen, and Mark Singer. Video uploaded to Youtube, 18 November 2011.
The Committee Room. Interesting Articles for Interested Readers.