New York Lite
Reviewed by Michael Cooper
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 22-23
New York Daysby Willie Morris (Little, Brown and Company, 1993, 396 pages).
Willie Morris’s New York Days, his thirteenth book, is fun to read because the writing is evocative, literate, and lyrical. This autobiography, which is intended as a sequel to his first one, North Toward Home, is mostly about Morris’s stint as a celebrated editor at Harper’s magazine. That famous old magazine summoned Morris to New York in 1963, when he was only in his late twenties, from his job as editor of the Texas Observer. He was a junior editor at Harper’s until 1967, when he was named editorin-chief, the job he held until a messy mass resignation in 1971.
New York Days describes Morris’s brief orbit in the galaxy of New York’s literati and glitterati. Apparently, every rich, famous, or influential person he ever met, or in some cases merely glimpsed, is mentioned in New York Days. There’s a telephone call from Norman Podhoretz, a note from Philip Roth, a brief exchange at a party with Tennessee Williams. At least one other reviewer has complained of Morris’s name dropping, and it is tedious at times.
On the other hand, Morris was friends with many cultural stars: Truman Capote, William Styron, Larry L. King, David Halberstam, and Arthur Schlesinger, to name just a few. The young editor is forever meeting, eating, or drinking with famous folk, and he has an eye for a good story. Like the time he and Capote were approached at dinner by a woman who asked, “‘Mr. Capote, I read that book In Cold Blood. I just have one question. Did you personally know those two murderers?’
‘Mama,’ he said, ‘did I know them? I lived with them for seven years.'”
But name dropping is just one of several problems with this autobiography. Another is its relentless self-congratulatory tone: how great the magazine was, how great its writers were, and, by not so subtle implication, how great its boy-wonder editor was. Plus, the rich, boorish, and short-sighted owners of Harper’s (who didn’t like Morris’s sledge-hammer journalism) are described so unflatteringly so consistently that it makes the reader suspect this is a get-even book. The conservative publishers reigned the editor in, he resigned, and, coupled with the pain of a recent divorce, the golden boy and his golden era crashed. While pay-back books can be delicious, there is always a nagging doubt about their objectivity.
Overall, New York Days offers little insight into either the times or the journalists who were stirring the social cauldron of the late 1960s. Under Morris’s editorship, the magazine published a surprising number of articles that helped define those years: Norman Mailer’s, “Prisoner of Sex,” and “On the Steps of the Pentagon,” and, (Morris’s favorite) Seymour M. Hersh’s “My Lai: The First Detailed Account of the Viet Nam Massacre.” There are a few insider’s tidbits strewn through the book. For example, Morris writes that he suggested the idea which resulted in Mailer’s Fire on the Moon. But there is not enough of this kind of information.
Because of the stature of these writers and the significance of their work, the reader approaches this book with high expectations that its author, their editor, will have revealing stories about how these journalists conceived and developed their articles and their impact on the nation’s political and cultural life. The reader’s expectations are unfulfilled. Essentially, New Yorks Days is not unlike a long article in a popular magazine, more entertaining than probing; it’s “lite” cultural history.
While much of New York Days is about Morris’s whirl in that culture capital, there are many passages to interest Dixiephiles. His first autobiography and his elevation to editor of Harper’s made Morris a celebrity at a time when the civil rights movement had saturated the media with images of vicious and seemingly ignorant white Southerners. Morris was another sort of curiosity, a Rhodes scholar and a white liberal from a town with the funny name of Yazoo in that awful place called Mississippi.
When North Toward Home was published, Barbara Walters interviewed Morris on the “Today Show.” She asked the author why he, at age twelve, had beaten up a three-year-old black child. Not because he was black, Morris tried to tell her with humor (dark as it might be, which is so characteristic of Southern writers), but because he was small. Morris and his hometown were also the subjects of a photographic essay in The Saturday Evening Post. And after resigning from Harper’s, with plenty of time on his hands, he wrote Good Old Boy, an autobiographical children’s book which Walt Disney Studios made into a movie.
Like fellow Mississippian Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Morris often muses about what the South is and what it means to be a Southerner. He does this mostly with other Southerners
and once, Hamlet-like, on a late night stroll over the battlefields at Gettysburg National Park. Morris approvingly quotes Styron on the subject: “If you were born and reared in the South it is certain you will remain a Southerner as long as you live, no matter how far you’ve traveled or wherever you’ve made your home.”
New York Days ends with a chapter entitled “South Toward Home” where, back in Mississippi, the author concludes, “Sometimes I cannot live with its awful emotional burdens, its terrible racist hazards and human neglects, sometimes I can, but these forever drive me to words.”
And Willie Morris is very, very good with words.
Michael L. Cooper is a native of southeastern Kentucky who lives in New York City. His last book was Playing America’s Game: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Lodestar/Dutton, 1993).