Yagoda, Ben 1954–
Yagoda, Ben 1954–
PERSONAL: Born February 22, 1954, in New York, NY; son of Louis (a labor arbitrator) and Harriet Yagoda; married Gigi Simeone (a college administrator), May 17, 1987; children: Elizabeth, Maria. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1976; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1991.
CAREER: New Leader, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1976–78; New Jersey Monthly, Princeton, staff editor, 1980–82; Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, articles editor, 1982–85; Daily News, Philadelphia, 1986–88; University of Delaware, Newark, assistant professor, 1992–96, associate professor of English, beginning 1996, professor of journalism and director of journalism program.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, PEN American Center, American Association of University Professors.
(With Ruth Westheimer) All in a Lifetime: An Autobiography, Warner (New York, NY), 1987.
Will Rogers (biography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Westheimer) The Value of Family: A Blueprint for the 21st Century, Warner (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor, with Kevin Kerrane) The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Work represented in anthologies, including Short Prose Reader and Shaping Prose. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, Esquire, GQ, Worth, and Rolling Stone. Book critic, Philadelphia, 1989–2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Ben Yagoda is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Will Rogers, The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.
Will Rogers is a biography of the comedian revered for his down-to-earth style and political humor. Rogers was born in Indian Territory (later to become Oklahoma) in 1879 and by the age of twenty-five had performed with Wild West shows around the world. In the infancy of his career, Rogers's specialty was rope tricks only; he had no monologue to accompany the tricks. He started speaking only later, while performing in American vaudeville shows, and soon attracted a following for his humorous asides and observations. He became a radio star, a nationally syndicated columnist, a novelist, and a favorite at the movies. Rogers's death in a plane crash in 1935 was cause for a period of national mourning. Yagoda delves deeply into his subject, using family papers and documents—even tax returns—in accumulating material on Rogers's life. He discusses columns and political satire written by Rogers and gives an inclusive study of Rogers's films. Gerald Weales in the Washington Post Book World commented: "There is … a wealth of detailed information for anyone who is coming to man and the myth for the first time."
Critics applauded Yagoda's book because, in addition to portraying a humorous and amiable man, it also shows a side of Rogers that few people remember. Yagoda dismantles Rogers's famous quote, "I never met a man I didn't like," proving that indeed there were people of whom Rogers was not fond, including President Warren Harding and Chicago Mayor Bill Thompson. In a newspaper column, Rogers criticized the mayor's intention of using of the lottery to help Chicago during the Depression. Thompson, infuriated, issued a statement summarizing how he hoped Rogers would himself go broke and be forced to accept charity rather than cracking jokes about it. "In this superbly researched biography of Will Rogers … our century's plaster-saint humorist is shown to be the moody, temperamental, shrewd, scathing, and vain man he sometimes was," wrote Mark Russell in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "Author Ben Yagoda isn't out to compete with the previous vivid, sentimental Rogers biographies or books of Rogers gags, aiming instead at being the definitive scholarly account of his life," noted Ronald L. Smith in the Chicago Tribune Books.
In 1997's The Art of Fact, which Yagoda edited with Kevin Kerrane, several pieces of "new" journalism are collected from such writers as Charles Dickens, Rosemary Mahoney, Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Joan Didion, showing how writers of both the past and present have practiced literary journalism. Yagoda and Kerrane provide background on the featured writers, along with information regarding the selected pieces. In the Library Journal, Rebecca Wondriska called The Art of Fact an "excellent anthology." L.S. Klepp in Entertainment Weekly called the book an "irresistible collection." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, though stating that "the book is organized more as a textbook than as a collection for general readers," noted that The Art of Fact contains "a lot of wonderful writing."
About Town, published in 2000, details the history of the weekly New Yorker magazine and the people who played a part in its growth, such as founder Harold Ross. Calling it a "compelling if slow-moving volume," a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that About Town, published during the year of the New Yorker's seventy-fifth anniversary, combines "anecdote, biography, literary history, and a serious look at the business side of the magazine." In a review for the Library Journal, Nathan Ward stated that About Town is "best when explaining the changes brought about in journalism by New Yorker writers and on how and why the magazine succeeded or lagged behind innovation elsewhere." Piers Brendon in the Columbia Journalism Review lauded Yagoda's work, noting that About Town "not only scrutinizes the magazine's contents but also assesses its cultural impact. It does so with the kind of verve, insight, and elegance that would have had [Harold] Ross dancing a jig of delight. It is, furthermore, the most comprehensive and authoritative history of the New Yorker yet to appear."
In the 2004 work The Sound on the Page, a "sophisticated and scintillating writer's resource," in the words of Booklist critic Donna Seaman, Yagoda looks at the methods by which authors cultivate a personal literary style. By examining the works of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Yagoda identifies the qualities and practices that contribute to the development of a distinctive narrative voice. According to Library Journal contributor Ann Schade, "the real jewels of the book are the interviews from outstanding voices of our time," including Billy Collins, Susan Orlean, Andrei Codrescu, Toni Morrison, and Dave Barry, whose insights often elaborate on the author's commentary. Yagoda "explores style and voice more fully and more helpfully in The Sound on the Page than any book previously published," remarked Steve Weinberg in the Writer.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Heritage, December, 1993, review of Will Rogers, p. 107.
Booklist, June 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, p. 1687.
Columbia Journalism Review, January, 2000, Piers Brendon, review of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 74.
Economist, October 30, 1993, review of Will Rogers, p. 104.
Entertainment Weekly, August 22, 1997, L.S. Klepp, review of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, p. 128.
Library Journal, August, 1997, Rebecca Wondriska, review of The Art of Fact, p. 102; February 1, 2000, Nathan Ward, review of About Town, p. 99; June 1, 2004, Ann Schade, review of The Sound on the Page, p. 150.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 7, 1993, Mark Russell, review of Will Rogers, p. 4.
New Leader, December 27, 1993, Josh Greenfeld, review of Will Rogers, p. 31; December 13, 1999, Paul Gray, review of About Town, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, July 26, 1993, review of Will Rogers, p. 49; June 23, 1997, review of The Art of Fact, p. 79; January 3, 2000, review of About Town, p. 64.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 12, 1993, Ronald L. Smith, review of Will Rogers, p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, October 10, 1993, Gerald Weales, review of Will Rogers, p. 6.
Writer, February, 2005, Steve Weinberg, "Writers Discuss Style, Voice and What Makes for Good Writing," review of The Sound on the Page, p. 46.