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.

Writing about the Sixties – even the mechanics of typing out the word – has become an exercise in fumbling for an angle that won’t look ridiculous. Through sloth or revisionism or toxic livers, chroniclers have managed to reduce the dynamism of that era to the pop image of the actor James Earl Jones shoo-flying Kevin Costner back to Woodstock with insect repellent in Field of Dreams. But had you been in Pittsburgh, an aspiring writer on the high-school newspaper, the reality of the Sixties began with Harper’s. South Hills Village Shopping Mall, air-conditioned and marqueed with capital letters because in 1968 it was the largest in the country. The magazine rack was in the Tobacco Shop, in the back, behind the Hallmark Card display. Somewhere, usually hidden like roadkill behind Family Circle and Popular Mechanics and weighted down with last month’s unsold copies of the Reader’s Digest, was Harper’s Magazine: Willie Morris, editor-in-chief.

By God that masthead had downright dangerous passion. For the English department at Upper St Clair High School, however, the writing of David Halberstam, Norman Mailer, Larry King and Marshall Frady, to name just a handful of the Morris Boys, was considered precocious troublemaking, and duly expelled from class as stylistically, politically and just about every other way-ally unfit for consumption or discussion. Harper’s used to know how to write in English, the gnarly old teachers said; Willie Morris brought the American jazz that made the language howl and kids read. More than Esquire (which owned the American Sixties like a big boy owns the playground), Harper’s under Morris reported the events and articulated the cravings that defined the generation. It was one hell of a magazine, so stimulating that I tacked a cover above the Remington before I chronicled the 1970 murders at Kent State for my college paper; so great, suggests one New York Days protagonist, that it had to be killed. That protagonist is Robert Lowell, the most distinguished poet America will ever have. Sitting at a picnic table under a maple, he asks Morris what plans are in store for Harper’s.

Lowell was silent for the moment. ‘It’s admirable,’ he finally said, ‘but forgive me for saying it will never work. You won’t be able to have the kind of magazine you really want for this country. You can’t sustain it.’

  ‘Why not?’ I asked.

  ‘Because your people won’t allow it.’

  ‘What people?’

  ‘The people who own your magazine. I know a great deal about people like that. Maybe for a while, who knows? I’m sorry to say it, but in the end they’ll never allow it. How on earth could they?’

It took an American poet to show that the business of the Sixties would turn out to be craftier than most, with everyone from Levi and his frayed jeans to Bill Clinton and his touchy-feeble politics stockpiling hip, and planning to amortise their investment by reselling themselves to the future. We knew this was happening, too. We just didn’t want to believe pollster George Gallup’s 1968 statistics that found the political views of voters between the ages of 21 and 29 no different from the views of those aged 30 to 49. ‘A lot of this talk about this group’s being a maverick generation must be considered ridiculous,’ Gallup said. ‘People should not worry about the future of this country. It’s in good hands’.

Over twenty years after the bankers snatched Harper’s from Morris’s hands, I read New York Days like the 25-year-old Monongahela River rat I was in the mid-Seventies, eagerly reading what Morris describes as ‘all the voluminous over the transom unsolicited submissions, passing along to the others with a typed comment pasted on the envelope anything with the vague glimmer of promise ... Enclosed is an article on my Persian cat Isabelle, who passed away eight years ago, but by me is not forgotten ... I am submitting to you a Neo-Zunilian approach to ancient vessels.’

Somewhere over the transom of those passed years, a whole lot of people in the Republic of Jefferson bought into the Neo-Zunilian approach. America always believes in the fantasy it cultivates for itself, the notion of fixing this, fixing that, tracing the wars, poverties and racisms in national life to misguided policies that began with the Civil War. When we tired of the fantasy of fixing, we turned to the fantasy of celebrity to make everything we couldn’t accomplish look possible. As Alice Brock, the power and fury behind the Sixties eatery Alice’s Restaurant, said, ‘the danger is when you start believing in the fantasy.’

The only let-down in New York Days is Morris’s oblique elaboration on Clinton. ‘Whoever thought the Sixties would be called the good old days?’ Morris begins.

Certainly not I, nor most of the others of all persuasions then. In the early Nineties criticisms of the young Sixties generation were hardly rare, for instance, among the post-Baby Boomers ... ‘It’s a big old garbage barge of a generation,’ a 31-year-old campaign adviser close to Bill Clinton would declare, ‘and we have had to clean it up after it – the drugs, the greed, everything.’

That’s quite a quote for a fellow Southerner to pull from inside the camp of the first confessed dope-smoking, blues-blowing, Vietnam-War-protesting President of the United States. And it says a whole hell of a lot. But then Clinton, as they might mumble down in Arkansas, attached himself to the Sixties like a boll weevil to a cotton bud. Consider just one incident. Shortly after his election, Clinton gathered his top aides together in the Presidential retreat at Camp David, for what was billed as ‘human resource development’ conducted by two professional ‘facilitators’. The point of this exercise, the new-age American leadership was informed, was to share some major fact or experience in their lives not included in their public biographies. Sharing such purifying events, they were told, helps build the sharing relationships necessary to foster trust among new teams. ‘Don’t try to make this sound weird, like we had some kind of encounter group therapy up there,’ one participant said, ‘it was actually great. It was just people talking about themselves.’ According to another facilitatee, Clinton ‘talked about how he was a fat kid when he was five and six and how the other kids taunted him.’

Morris claims that

the election of 1992 would emphasise for all the stark contrast between President George Bush’s World War Two era with its clear absolute and Bill Clinton’s generation and its wrenching moral gropings over Vietnam. The future President Clinton’s best friend at Oxford University, a Rhodes Scholar from Spokane, refused to serve and became a fugitive from justice. He eventually returned home and later committed suicide.

Clinton and his troubled pal both realised that time was running out on the exquisite and terrible American Sixties; and Clinton, explains a Southern friend, ‘went to Oxford handling himself differently ’cause he saw all these tortured tumbleweeds among the flower children’.

Willie Morris also sensed that the end was near. It came in February 1971, in the Minneapolis office of Harper’s owner John Cowles Jr and William Blair, the magazine’s president and its chief executive officer. Mailer had just written The Prisoner of Sex to be the whole cover for the March issue, and one of the other Minnesota businessmen at the nearly four-hour meeting said: ‘No wonder Harper’s is such a failure. Who are you editing this magazine for. A bunch of hippies?’

Morris started composing his resignation letter on the flight back to New York. Not long after that, Larry King agreed to Blair’s suggestion that he confer with Cowles about the future of the magazine, and when Blair told the rest of the staff that the Texan was staying on, King called him a son-of-a bitch and demanded he admit to having lied. ‘Any irrational thoughts I might have had about my resignation not being accepted, and for a brief time I actually must have thought it might not, were soon dissipated,’ Morris writes. There was a ‘bitter, edgy meeting’ with Cowles and the other editors, including the newly acquired Lewis Lapham – ‘a likeable, good-looking young man my age, born in San Francisco but cast as an Easterner of titular WASP lineage. Hotchkiss and Yale: Lapham Fieldhouse at Yale.’ What transpired during that meeting would later be described as the first act of the end of the American Sixties.

Nearly a quarter of a century later these words would start a war:

The meeting began late at night and lasted three hours ... With the editors lined up in front of him on straight-backed chairs, from a yellow couch Cowles spoke at first from a prepared statement concerning the publication’s decline in circulation and said that William Blair would be promoted to publisher, effective immediately, and that Harper’s would go in ‘new directions’. He spoke of readership survey polls showing the magazine should try something else, and that market and leadership research should determine the stories the magazine should undertake. Larry King said: ‘If you can find one single goddamn self-respecting writer worth the ink of his by-line who’ll work on terms like that, John, I’ll kiss your ass till your nose bleeds.’ Halberstam asks Cowles to define the new directions the magazine should pursue, and what he was specifically objecting to, suggesting it was ‘the hottest book in the trade’. Cowles replied: ‘A magazine can’t live on favourable press notices and dinner party conversation.’ He added: ‘much of it bores me’ ...

  The dissenters offered to find financing to purchase the magazine. It was not for sale, the owner replied, and William Blair would remain in charge and choose the new editor ... A strange thing happened. Lewis Lapham switched sides and began agreeing with the owner. Yes, he said, polling readers to ascertain what they wanted was a great idea. ‘His behaviour,’ Halberstam recalled, ‘stunned us all.’

  John Corry said: ‘All right, John, are you telling us that the magazine will change but you won’t say in what direction, and that Blair will remain in power?’ Cowles replied: ‘Yes, that’s pretty much the case.’ With that Larry King stood up. ‘Then fuck it, there’s no reason to stay here. I resign,’ and stormed out of the chamber ... All of them subsequently resigned. The only one who stayed behind was Lewis Lapham.

With that Willie Morris heads south. Cowles sells Harper’s and sails into the confrontational world of EST, later joining other human potential programmes such as channeling and the Skinner Releasing Technique. Lapham survives as the editor-in-chief of Harper’s; circulation: November 1993, 190,000 and dropping; February 1971, 325,000 and hopeful.

The only hope tonight is in Arkansas. Manhattan is seeing the bloodiest street fighting since the clam-linguini war that followed revelations that Woody Allen had slept with his wife’s adopted daughter. Eastside, Westside, all around the town’s British-controlled perimeter Louis Lapham and his humiliated forces meet like a collegium of Soviet generals to plan a counter-attack in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Writers loyal to Willie Morris roll articles across the Vanity Fair transom like tanks into Moscow, cauterising dissenters with cocktails; Lapham swiftly issues a statement that says Morris was thrown out because he blew over a million of Junior’s pre-off-gold-standard dollars paying writers too much money, and then buying them dinner at the King Cole Bar and the Four Seasons.

Rhetorical bursts of sniper fire appear to be coming from top floors of the Condé Nast Building. Top British officials in the Manhattan Magazine Occupation Government met to discuss fresh ways of having the spotlight thrown off their display of green cards. Cornered by a reporter from the Whole Earth Catalog, militant editorial defence minister Harry Evans denied that he had taken custody of Junior Cowles to channel the spirit of Neville Chamberlain at re-education clinics for Random House editors. ‘The violence in New York Days is a lesson, a bad lesson and no one wants to repeat it,’ a domestic policy adviser to interior minister Tina Brown told the New York Post in an article that was not published because its owner, Rupert Murdoch, had shut down the paper. ‘The prevailing view of this government is that Americans cannot be trusted to edit for Americans. Harper’s circulation figures, then and now, support this. The idea of renewing the principles of Willie Morris, even restoring Americans to the position of editor-in-chief at American publications, as some are now advocating, has no widespread appeal to a population – and advertisers – still stung by the enormous and, to them, inexplicable humiliation of not having a royal family.’

The bartender at Elaine’s restaurant, who is the spokesman for the American Editors’ government in exile, stated that both Lapham and Morris had been given assurances of safety if they entered embassy grounds. The bartender angrily denied British press reports that Elaine Kaufman, a leading character in New York Days, had offered to prosecute both men in return for a cover story in a British food magazine. ‘Elaine did receive a call from the defence ministry,’ he said, ‘but she turned down Mr Evans’s proposal to send one mechanised company of newly arrived British sub-editors with an armoured platoon and air gunships into the restaurant.’ ‘I hope a peace treaty is signed soon,’ an award-winning, American-born editor said in a letter smuggled out of an uptown unemployment office. ‘America must finally realise that Bill Clinton is the only eleventh hour salvation it’s going to get for having been a part of that thing called Sixties.’