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New York Days.

New York Days, Willie Morris's deeply felt memoir of his time as editor-in-chief of Harper's, has gotten mixed reviews. In a sense, this is another; despite the overall power of the book, it has some curious flaws.

Reviewers have questioned Morris's memory, noting, for example, that his account here differs from that in his earlier memoir, North Toward Home, of how he came to be editor of Harper's. There's also the matter of his endless star-gazing, breathless accounts of parties and conversations with the famous--George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and many others. The list is long, and Morris is still a little awe-struck about it, as if he can scarcely believe he was there.

To make matters worse, many of his accounts are overwritten. There's a hopeless intoxication with the language that at times approaches self-parody. Describing his conversations with a group of homicide detectives in a Fifty-fifth Street bar, Morris writes: "I liked these tough, foul cops and their raw, florid idiom, their cynical yet irrepressible brio, their sports gossip and racy badinage." Later, he refers to the "ambidextrous felicities" of Pete Maravich, and about New York itself he concludes: "Far from being an aberration from the national life the city was if anything the crux and apogee of our contemporary existence, because it somehow brought together, however tenuously, the whole range and spectrum, manifestation and extreme, of the American breed and temper."

That kind of overwriting grows old in a hurry, and yet--in the case of Willie Morris--it's easy enough to forgive. In the course of his long and high-minded career, he has earned a place of honor in American nonfiction, and whatever the quibbles with his latest piece of work, it's important to move on to a larger point: Despite its inevitable imperfections, New York Days is a gripping memoir--brilliant in places--by one of the finest editors of our time.

There were many of us in the 1960s who cherished every issue of Harper's, who felt a kind of passion and fascination for it that we had never felt toward a magazine before and have never felt since. We knew even then that the quality was a reflection of the brilliance of the editor, and that Morris's approach, at its heart, was simple. He hired a staff of contributing editors--writers such as Larry L. King, Marshall Frady, and David Halberstam--and he turned them loose. Frady went off to the Middle East, and Halberstam wrote about Vietnam and "the best and the brightest" in the Kennedy Administration, and King wrote a string of entertaining profiles, the most moving of which was about his own father.

"While we digested our suppers on The Old Man's porch," King wrote, "his grandchildren chased fireflies in the summer dusk and, in turn, were playfully chased by neighborhood dogs. As always, The Old Man had carefully locked the collar of his workday khakis. He recalled favored horses and mules from his farming days, remembering their names and personalities though they had been thirty or forty years dead. I gave him a brief thumbnail sketch of William Faulkner--Mississippian, great writer, appreciator of the soil and good bourbon--before quoting what Faulkner had written of the mule: 'He will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once.' The Old Man cackled in delight. 'That feller sure knowed his mules,' he said."

Morris supplemented that kind of writing with an aggressive free-lance pursuit of the best work from the best writers in America. As it happened, many of them were in New York, but he managed to find them wherever they were--Norman Mailer, William Styron, Bill Moyers, and the rest--and the result in Harper's was a stunning commentary on the times. In New York Days, Morris quotes frequently from the magazine's contributors, revealing a pride in his own work as editor, but displaying also the key to his success. Then as now, he loved good writing and admired good writers. And all in all, he was the kind of editor most of them prayed for.

In the early 1970s, however, the circulation of Harper's began to decline--a reflection of the gathering economic recession--and the owners stepped in and forced Morris to resign. There is anger and hurt in his account of those days, and rightly so. But this is not a self-pitying memoir; in fact, it's far less indulgent than most.

Morris recounts his memories of Harper's, the bitter and the sweet, but he does a great deal more than that. He gives us a passionate account of the 1960s, with all their pain and confusion and hope, a subject grand enough for his words.

He remembers the dangers, as all of us do--the ghetto riots and the escalating war, the lies and rationalizations of the Government, the self-destructive rage of the radical Left. But Morris remembers the optimism, too--the bravery and eloquence of the civil-rights movement, the charisma of John Kennedy and the passion of his brother--and he felt the possibility, at least for a time, that the country might come to terms with its past.

"With all its flauntings and sufferings, its nihilisms and extremes," Morris writes, "the decade was still a time of immense and pristine hope and idealism, the last the nation would have for many years." And the opposite was a terrible thing to behold: "Beginning with the Reagan revolution of 1981, perhaps the greediest and most cynical years in our history as a people, the acquisitive ideology so decried by the Sixties' rebellions achieved full fruition."

In the summary of those years that follows this statement, there is little that is new, but the passion and the eloquence and the outrage are welcome--part of an important portrait of the times, crafted from the memories of a first-class writer.

Willie Morris makes it clear in the course of these pages that he's still in love with both his country and his work, and whatever the flaws in his ambitious recollections, New York Days is a book to stir the soul.
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Author:Gaillard, Frye
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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