Truth be told, what really presses me to break the 10th commandment where Calvin Trillin is concerned is that I covet his writing style, in particular the architectural precision of his serious reportage in the New Yorker and the descriptive, humorous, and self-reflective tone of his memoirs.
Take, for example, the way Trillin captures the differences between his parents in the New Yorker article that became the book “Messages from My Father”: “When I displayed behavior that she [his mother] considered obstinate — that happened with some regularity — she would tell me I took after my father’s family, the St. Joe [St. Joseph, Missouri] people. I was not troubled by this. There seemed to be only two alternatives, and what little boy wants to take after people who are nervous [his mother’s family].”
Trillin, who is the guest speaker at Princeton Public Library’s annual gala on Friday, November 20, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father, who never went to college, was a grocer who later owned a restaurant, a tavern, and a small residential hotel and ended his career in commercial real estate. Trillin does not remember himself as a writerly sort who might stand off to the side observing and taking notes and recording all his impressions in a diary. He did not get his real start with the written word, in fact, until he came to Yale. “In college I worked on the newspaper,” he says, “but I thought of it as reporting rather than writing.”
In an effort to define just how he ended up in journalism, Trillin ruminates a bit, backpedals, and then weaves a story to make his point. “Most of the people my age who ended up in whatever this is — journalism or that sort of thing — sort of backed in,” he say in a phone interview. “I don’t think very many of us were people who woke up as little boys or girls and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Trillin backed into journalism as the least objectionable career possibility. “With me, it was sort of, not exactly negative, but I knew I wasn’t going to be anything that required numbers or business, or something that required science — I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing,” he says.
Next Trillin offers a counterexample. Most people his age who ended up as writers, he suggests, did not follow the path of R.W. Apple Jr. from the New York Times. Alluding to a profile he had written about Apple, who he met when both were college newspaper editors, Trillin says, “when he was a little boy in Akron, he was trying to follow the Olympics and couldn’t get enough information and started reading the New York Times, and he knew he wanted to work for the New York Times some day. That was really unusual for people in my generation.” (In an aside to an aside, he notes that Apple went to Princeton, “at least until the Princeton administration did not think being editor of the Daily Princetonian was in lieu of going to classes and doing papers and kicked him out.”)
He acknowledges that getting a plum job at the New Yorker was not happenstance, but rather started with an internship at Time magazine between his junior and senior years, which came directly through the old boys’ network — through the guy who had preceded Trillin as chairman of the Yale Daily News. It wasn’t much of a job, mainly clipping things from the newspaper and writing a paragraph here and there, but it led to another job the next summer working for a conference Time was putting on and eventually to his first “grownup job.”
After a stint in the army, Trillin found himself in the Southern bureau of Time magazine, based in Atlanta, from the fall of 1960 to the fall of 1961. This was a piece of amazing luck, because it turned out to be a busy time in the South, almost totally about matters concerning race. “I got there around the time Bobby Kennedy got King out of Reedsville,” says Trillin. “The sit-in movement was going on, New Orleans school integration, University of Georgia integration, freedom rides, and Atlanta school integration.” The reporters who preceded and followed him at Time’s Atlanta bureau pretty much sat around with their hands in their laps.
For a young journalist like Trillin, this was a great opportunity — he had a chance to cover great stories and to learn about a subject in great depth. “That’s what hooked me on being a reporter,” he says. If instead he had worked for a newspaper, his assignments would have been more along the lines of covering utility board hearings.
But the prevailing notion at Time magazine of group journalism had its down side. “Working at Time was great unless you read the magazine,” says Trillin. “I sent in 20 pages and some guy in New York was assigned to write 70 lines out of what you worked on and what he could get out of the New York Times.”
Next Trillin was one of those in-house guys at Time, who produced stories from other people’s reporting. What followed was time as a floater, writing sections like religion or medicine when the writer was sick or on vacation. Trillin recalled that time later in a comic novel titled “Floater,” later joined by “Runestruck,” about the possible discovery of Viking artifacts in Maine, and “Tepper Isn’t Going Out” about a guy in New York City who refuses to leave his parking spot.
In 1963 Trillin moved to the New Yorker, where his first piece about the integration of the University of Georgia morphed into his first book about two-and-a-half years later when the two students he had written about were about to graduate.
For 15 years Trillin produced a piece every three weeks for the New Yorker; most were about controversies or murders. Normally these required a work week of reporting, then a week of writing, and then the next week looking around for the next story and paying the bills.
One fairly recent story typifies Trillin’s attention to his journalistic craft. “The Color of Blood” was the tale of the Whites, an African-American family living in a mostly lily-white Long Island suburb. One evening a group of white teenage boys, schoolmates of the family’s son, Aaron, showed up drunk and threatened to punish Aaron for allegedly threatening to rape Jennifer Martin, the younger sister of their friend.
The African-American father, John White, and his son, Aaron, came outside with guns, and one of the white boys ended up dead. Did the gun go off because Dano Cicciaro grabbed it or did John White shoot him? Did the white boys actually venture onto the Whites’ driveway or not? What constitutes “threat”? Did the black man feel threatened because of the racial history of African Americans in the United States? The “truth” was not entirely apparent, but the racial underpinning of the story was, and Trillin’s story captured all the angles. “I am often interested in murders like that that seem to have some kind of resonance outside of just the crime,” he says. “The point of those kinds of those stories is just to tell the story, if it has a strong narrative line. There were implications on both sides, and that was part of the story. I don’t know what happened at the end of the driveway.”
Trillin’s writing style took another turn in the early 1970s, when he was covering the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival in Louisiana or writing about Cincinnati chili. “I realized I could write lighter pieces and give myself a break, sort of comic relief,” he says. These pieces about eating and travel often included his wife and daughters, but almost as caricatures — the sensible wife and the children who didn’t like to eat funny food. “I don’t think it is possible to read anything about my family and tell one daughter from the other,” he says.
Memoir writing came much later, when a college classmate committed suicide. Trillin affectionately remembered “Denny” Hansen, a good friend whom Trillin and his buddies used to affectionately tease about being a future president — because he seemed to excel in everything as well as possessing a presidential smile and an engaging personality. But when Hansen, then a depressed and often difficult loner, killed himself at age 55, Trillin and his Yale friends had difficulty processing Denny’s death.
Using “Roger” as an alter ego to capture how much his friend had apparently changed over his life, Trillin interviewed everyone he could find who had ever been connected to Denny and shared his findings in “Remembering Denny.” Interviewing people about Denny was not difficult, says Trillin, but the reality of Denny’s life was more difficult to assimilate. “It was hard because it seemed enormously sad to me,” says Trillin. “The whole thing was sad — that he killed himself, that he had to shut himself off that way, and that he didn’t have his family. A lot of things that seemed to me to be important to people, he didn’t have.”
When Trillin showed his wife, Alice, the first draft of the book, she told him he was standing too much on the outside. “In Yale terms, because Denny and I were similar people,” he says, “she thought it would be a lot better if there was more of me in there rather than trying to pretend I was someone just writing about him.”
Because Denny’s background was so similar to Trillin’s — both were non-Eastern seaboard, public school boys from immigrant backgrounds — Trillin’s father also crept into the book. This led an editor to suggest that Trillin do a memoir about his father, which was published under the title “Messages from My Father.” His third memoir was about his wife, Alice, who died in 2001 at the age of 63.
In addition to his memoirs and his work at the New Yorker, Trillin wrote a column for the Nation from 1978 to 1985. Trillin remembers when Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, invited him to do the column. “He asked me to do some column, but it was so silly it was obviously a trap for me to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that but I would do such and such.’” He fit the column in during the off week from his New Yorker articles in between paying bills. These columns fell under the genre of similarly humorous pieces he had been writing for the New Yorker’s Casuals (now called Shouts and Murmurs). From 1986 through 1995 he syndicated the column, and from 1996 to 2001, he did a column for Time magazine.
Trillin’s humor also takes the form of comic verse, which grew out of a familial amusement. Trillin’s father used to write rhyming couplets on menus, and Trillin took up the gauntlet. “I had always been the special occasion poet, the guy who does really bad verse for a rehearsal dinner,” he says. In 1990, he started writing a piece of comic verse weekly for the Nation. In a sample from October 29, 2001, he addressed American military policy in Afghanistan:
A Two-pronged Approach to the Afghan People
By night our missiles rain on them, By day we drop them bread. They should be grateful for the food — Unless, of course, they’re dead.
Trillin found yet another venue for exercising his considerable talents when Wynn Handman of the American Place Theater invited him to do a one-man show in 1988 as part of a series on American humor and another in 2000.
As much as Trillin has made it big on the New York literary scene, he still feels deeply his roots in the Midwest. Despite raising their two daughters in Greenwich Village, Trillin characterizes himself and his wife as coming from square backgrounds that they nonetheless valued. To make this point in the roundabout way he loves, Trillin notes that if you listen to people talk about their childhoods, a theme often emerges — “we have a noble family name and you must never do anything to besmirch it” or “we’re miserable because our father deserted us.” For his own children, he kept a particular theme in mind that he very much wanted to encapsulate their childhoods: “You grew up in Greenwich Village, but despite all evidence to the contrary, you’re being raised in Kansas City.”
An Evening with Calvin Trillin, Princeton Public Library, Nassau Presbyterian Church. Friday, November 20, 6 p.m. Talk by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, with an introduction by John McPhee, followed by a party and auction at the library. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.