Cartoons satirizing pretentious residents of New York reached an apotheosis with Saul Steinberg’s celebrated 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” Beyond the Hudson River lies a visual approximation of a certain provincialism: an empty plane populated by words recognizable as place names but without any distinctive characteristics. All that varies the landscape is the occasional sun-baked rock formation delivering a general image of “the West.” Nearly 40 years earlier, Daniel Wallingford’s “New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America” conveyed similar ideas, invoking the crude European maps of early exploration.
It’s important to note, however, that sending up the New Yorker zeitgeist was not always a playful exercise in self-awareness; it originated as a socio-political commentary in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. John T. McCutcheon’s The New Yorker’s Idea of the Map of the United States from 1922 materializes the fantasy of ocular mastery. Looking west from the edge of the Atlantic, our visual field contains the entire country. This omniscience, of course, is not really our own; it is the structural correlative of the power—social, commercial, political—the eponymous New Yorker arrogates for himself. Standing in the cartoon’s foreground, he invites his friend (and us, by extension) to “go out in the backyard and look over my place.” We accept his invitation, and the foreshortened perspective extends to the Pacific Ocean. Robbed of their proper designations, the various parts and constituents of the United States are represented as the New Yorker’s own: New England is his schoolhouse; the Great Lakes the “fish pond”; Detroit the “garage”; southern and Midwestern farmers the “tenants”; and California the “mines.”
McCutcheon’s was perhaps a representative “second city” fate; after all, the pedigree of Steinberg’s New Yorker cover, with its apparent debt to the McCutcheon, is usually traced to Wallingford’s map of 1937. After the Chicago cartoonist’s sharp critique, it was inevitable that New Yorkers would reclaim the sport for themselves.