restricted access Willie Morris: New York Days
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Americanjournalismduringthe1960sandearly1970senjoyedagolden period. Willie Morris’s valuable new memoir, New York Days, captures that time of literary fecundity, before it withered under the pitiless glare of television, and was smothered by the creeping vines of VCRs. One often overlooked reason for that flowering of nonfiction was the redoing of obscenity laws in the 1950s and the early 1960s – thanks mainlytofiction,butultimatelynonfictionwasthemoreaffectedgenre. By the 1960s, writers (additionally aided by libel law decisions) realizedtheycouldwritewhattheywanted – notthatfour-letterwords began to flood the pages of magazines and newspapers (though some did), but the style and subjects that established publications could consider seriously loosened up. When Morris ascended to the helm of Harper’s in 1967 at age thirty -two, its youngest ever editor-in-chief, the magazine was furiously playing catch-up. The sixties saw the birth of the “underground” press, which soon grew into the “alternative” media. Frisky journals of various sorts were starting to gain readers and influence. Those were heady days in American writing: the novel was being dethroned as the crown of letters and replaced by the much jauntier cap of what is often erroneously lumped together as the “New JourWillie Morris: New York Days 308 309 nalism.” What was new (and soon to end) was the hyper-literacy of the public in the sixties and seventies – back then the phrase “reading public” did not mean a special interest group. New York Days is many books at once: a sketchy history of American journalism, a portrait of the “Sixties,” a romantic memoir of a young man’s love affair with New York City, and a meditation on “the complexity of remembrance.” Each part succeeds and fails here and there, but Morris does give the reader an engrossing insider’s view of how the world of intellectual life and publishing operated in those days. One of the memoir’s many ironies is that Harper’s, the oldest continually published magazine in the country, an East Coast monument, was owned and operated during Morris’s tumultuous tenure by a very Midwestern family, the Cowles of Minneapolis, “For the first time in its long and eminent history, Harper’s was the property of interests other than the book publishers. . . .” “This meant,” Morris goes on to write, “that the magazine, in essence ,hadbecometheminusculefacetofaMidwest-basedempirebasicallyofmoneyedabsenteesextendingfromtheAtlantictothePacific .” The Cowles purchase of Harper’s in the early sixties was an avatar of the corporate buying and selling mania that climaxed in the eighties , a type of behavior wilder and more unstable than any attempted by the counterculture. And money plays a big role in New York Days. It shows up most floridly in Morris’s love affair with the city. Much more candidly than in his first memoir, North Toward Home, Morris tells his story of coming to the big city. Morris, Mississippi born, graduated from the University of Texas and was a Rhodes Scholar (like Bill Clinton who, before going off as a Rhodes Scholar himself to Oxford, put in an appearance at the offices of Harper’s to ask advice of Willie Morris, two 310 upwardly-mobile sons of the meritocracy crossing paths), and became the editor of the Texas Monthly in 1960. Young Willie had caught the eye of John Fisher, then editor of Harper’s. Fisher offered him a job, dangling the promise of being editor -in-waiting.Morris,likeournewpresident,hadatalentforsoliciting the attention of older, more powerful men. He repays them by being charming, bright and destined to run something. Harper’sdidcatchupwiththerestofthefastpackofmagazines,and it beat everyone else by more than a nose in one particular race. It published90 ,000wordsofNormanMailer’sArmiesoftheNight,titled,“The StepsofthePentagon,”intheMarch1968issue.AsMorrisnotes,it“was the longest magazine article ever published.” Harper’s did best them all – in length – and letting writers write long had many consequences. It allowed writers to develop. However, one thing Harper’s did not do wasdiscovernewtalent.Itgavespacetoanumberofestablishedwriters. Speaking of William Styron, Morris writes: “As with Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Philip Roth and others, my early young man’s reading of his work made me promise myself that if I ever became editor I would purposefully seek him out for the magazine’s pages.” Editing as hero-worshiping can work, especially if you have talented heroes. Those who were not well-known novelists crossing over to the nonfiction field (such as Truman Capote) that he printed were established journalists like David Halberstam. It was left to magazines like Rolling Stone to uncover a new generation of writers; it did so because of length, too. Rolling...


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