Like a boll weevil to a cotton bud

A. Craig Copetas

  • New York Days by Willie Morris
    Little, Brown, 400 pp, £19.45, September 1993, ISBN 0 316 58421 5

Bill Clinton – cooing and eager – is arguing that the watermelon is not a parasite. It is New York, America, and the year is 1968 or 1969. We are having cocktails, the Southern gentleman’s expression for raw liquor sprayed with vermouth, at Elaine’s Restaurant, or perhaps it’s the home of Jean Stein, the wealthy and stunningly attractive daughter of the chairman of the board of the Music Corporation of America. Money and beauty, as ever, are important, but power and greed have yet to replace ideas and aspirations in the popular currency. It would take many more years, and boxcar loads of wine and cheese and testimony in front of the United States Congress, to determine just how those dreams had been deferred.

Yet tonight the cemetery of hope and idealism is empty. Jack Kennedy is alive. Martin Luther King is alive. Bobby Kennedy is alive. James Baldwin is alive. Janis Joplin is alive. Jack Kerouac is alive. Jimi Hendrix is alive. Lyndon Johnson is alive. James Jones is alive. Jim Morrison and Robert Penn Warren are alive. Richard Nixon is dead; and a Soviet-bloc skier named Ivana Trump – someone overhears Sixties psychic Jeanne Dixon saying – will assign her name to a novel she does not write with the full and worldwide backing of one of America’s largest publishing houses. We have not the time to laugh at this speculation because dinner is announced, and William Faulkner is seated next to Candy author Terry Southern. Willie Morris, of the Texas Observer and Harper’s Magazine by way of a place called Yazoo and a university named Oxford, is now listening.

‘Mr Bill,’ Southern whispers into Faulkner’s ear, ‘why are you and I already drinking brandy and everyone else is still drinking wine?’

‘Terry,’ the self-described Delta dirt farmer replies, ‘there was a saying in currency in the court of the Emperor Napoleon at the beginning of the last century: “Claret is for the ladies, and port for men but brandy is for the heroes.” ’

Morris’s account of his tenure as editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine is without doubt the finest book on the United States of America since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Yes, a grand statement, but also a remorseful one, because New York cannot allow Morris’s Manhattan incident to be judged as the literary sequel to the canny French aristocrat’s 1830 discourse on the tyranny of the majority, the price of a just society, and the contradictions between political equality and economic inequality. Morris quotes one of his colleagues from the days of colour, generation and credibility gaps:

That already says something of the New York of today. There is no literary world, no music world, none of that, really, just a lot of clashing social activity, mainly built on money and celebrity or access to both. No one seems to come to New York any more with the hopes that you and I had, those inflated Balzacian ambitions to meet the great ones and become one of them.

Balzacian ambitions: I remember those, before they were replaced by a new generation whose chief goal is to find the next Barney the dinosaur and peddle the Hungarian wives of rich Manhattan slumlords as novelists. But 2000 is nearly upon us. The times are no longer a changin’ – they have changed.

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