Thursday, December 12, 2013

The New Yorker: Rea Irvin Covering the Season for Us.

"New York City is the capital of the American Christmas. The Puritan settlements to the north banned the holiday as Popish and pagan; and so it was, descended from the ancient Roman solstitial Saturnalia."

Thus saith John Updike in his foreward to Christmas at the New Yorker, a compendium of thematic stories, poems, humor, and art since its 1925 founding. It is a terrific book, a veritable universe of stellar writing from Thurber, Perelman, Mencken, Nabokov, Keillor, and so on.

The Puritans didn’t get their way, and so we continued to have the annual December celebrations, for some connected to the birth of Christ, but for many, not.

The weekly covers of The New Yorker---a cultural epicenter of the capital of the American Christmas--are haikus on the spectrum of the season, from the holy to the wholly kitsch.

Some of the most appealing are from Rea Irvin, the father of Eustace Tilley himself. Born in San Francisco in 1881, he had an extraordinary range of styles and visions but is not referenced much these days.

Here is Emily Gordon on Irvin, from a 2008 article in Print: "Despite his pivotal role in defining The New Yorker in its earliest years, Irvin has not garnered the attention given to his editorial counterparts, and much of his life and work remain a mystery." Wiki tells us that he died at the ripe old age of 90, in 1972, in Frederiksted, Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Irvin's Christmas Covers
The cover up top is one of my favorite: A chic turn on Gloria, In Excelsis Deo, hovering above what might be Palm Beach of the 1930s. Since he died on St. Croix, I like to think he got his vision for seeing that chic archangel.

Next I like the roaring twenties (1925), toy Daddy Fat Cat plying the Toy Ballerina with pearls, one of those hints of the adult world that ebbed and flowed over the years in the magazine.

Then there is a pair of strange Santa depictions. 1926 speaks to the universal need for Santa, with ethnically diverse men all sporting Santa hats and fake beards. A very global vision for its day.


1931 brings a disturbing, hulking Kris Kringle, menacing what I imagine is a "nonbeliever in Santa" while he sleeps with a garish, serpent-like toy. Some tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear. Let’s leave it at that.

1932 brought a trio of angels bearing tokens of Wall Street: a banker's tie, box of cigars, and basket of cash. Their upward gaze suggests they are entreating the Higher Power with these early gifts, which is a little chilling given the Crash of 1929 and Great Depression with so many people's lives ruined. 

1944 saw a somber cover for a readership still at war.