In the preface of Willie Morris’ “New York Days,” he asks us to consider this text as the sequel to his critically acclaimed “North Toward Home,” as the narrative picks up from where he left off in NTH – moving to New York City to join Harper’s Magazine and eventually become the editor in chief. I had one small issue with that request, which isn’t a fault of Morris’ but a matter of timing: Morris published NTH in 1967 and didn’t pen “Days” until 1993.
Of course, Morris’ life didn’t take a 26-year nap by the riverside. It carried on, and those years in between the two memoirs were filled with experience and perspective and the wisdom that comes with age.
So, naturally, the Morris who sits down at his writing desk to chronicle his run at Harper’s and life in New York is a wiser one, a man looking back on his youth and sheepishly grinning at the bravado, yet yearning for the false confidence that accompanies it. Morris takes us through the triumphs and tragedies – both professional and personal – of his New York days and tries to allow us to live them as he did. This approach succeeds, mostly, except when the inner critic arrives and strips bare a decision made by the “Mississippi hothead,” as Morris refers to himself upon his arrival in New York in 1963.
I do not regret Morris’ revisionist tone in “Days” – I think it is a strong point. Morris is able to provide context that would have escaped him had he written this book in the early 1970s on Long Island, where he fled after resigning from Harper’s. But, because of this, I couldn’t comprehend “Days” as a straight sequel to NTH, and this feels appropriate, because much of “Days,” from the full-belly nostalgia for Old School Journalism to the toxicity of America in the 1960s, is difficult to replicate when reading 50 years after these days in Morris’ life occurred.
Morris came to New York City as a 32-year-old, stuffed with a cocky zeal that, he assured himself, would be all the fuel he needed to conquer not only the literary world, but also the mother American city herself.
There were eight million telephone numbers in the Manhattan directory, and every one of them would have returned my calls.
Like so many of us have experienced upon our initiation with New York, Morris grew to love the city for its boundless energy. He loved it unconditionally despite everything it forced him to become – a smoldering wreckage that burned overnight while the daytime was spent making journalism and art and good times. His cocksure sensibility needed no kerosene, but the city provided it anyway, fueling the beast that would pen this mission statement to his new staff:
The country badly needs a truly national magazine, unidentified with any intellectual clique or with any region, or city, or slice of a city, willing to fight to the death the pallid formulas and deadening values of the mass media. It needs a magazine young and courageous enough to carry the language to its limits, to reflect the great tensions and complexities and even the madnesses of the day, to encourage the most daring and imaginative and inventive of our writers, scholars, and journalists – to help give the country some feel of itself and what it is becoming.”
He was a subtle man, that younger Morris.
While “Days” waxes a little too long, in my opinion, on the cliché New York literary life – OK, we get that drinks at parties with poets and politicians make metallic sounds when ice hits glass – it is utter brilliant in its recollection and description of not only running a journalism giant in the 1960s, but the tensions and warts that marked that age of our country. As someone who came long after that decade, I found Sixties American history to be fascinating when documented through the prism of Morris’ professional life.
There was David Halberstam writing about Vietnam, Jack Fischer writing about the JFK assassination, Norman Mailer doing whatever Norman Mailer wanted to do (Morris understood he had an animal in Mailer that he simply needed to let hunt – whatever he brought home for dinner surely would be good). There were the Southern protests on university campuses.
Oh, and of course there was Morris’ meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in a publisher’s apartment in New York. Morris and King shared a literary agent, Joan Daves, and got to talking about civil rights and Mississippi. Morris told King how much he admired his Letter from Birmingham Jail and recited a few passages, to which King responded, “Thank you. Of course, I had a little time on my hands when I wrote it.”
It’s a compelling ride through a part of history that I’m not sure anyone of my generation can truly understand. Morris doubts the ability of even those who were children in the 60s, writing that they came from parents who rose from the rubble of world wars and made it their mission to save their children from anything resembling that experience. Morris writes of the privileged children:
The vast majority of them came of age in the burgeoning new suburbias, rich and deracinated vicinities whose privileged priorities glorified the children. Little wonder these children would come to take happiness and fulfillment for granted.
In fairness to Morris, he also added this a paragraph later:
All this may be too simplistic a portrait of the rebellious and embattled youth of the Sixties, but they stirred more unresolved passions than any other young generation in our history, and the one trait they most consummately shared was a rebellion against all authority, the desire to do anything possible to be different from the parents’ generation.
No, I don’t believe I can fully grasp the charged emotional current of that time – that time is gone. And that’s fitting, I think, because the literary world as Morris romanticizes and describes it in “Days” is, if not gone, down to its final embers. That is not to say the work of that time is gone, mind you, just the time itself.
Morris eventually resigned from Harper’s over the only metric that really matters, then and now: money. The magazine was operating at a $125,000 to $150,000 annual deficit when Morris began at the magazine, and that would only increase. With dwindling circulation, the owners wanted to cut costs and pages, putting one handcuff on writers if not two. They wanted to reimagine the vision of Harper’s and its purpose. Together, that was enough for Morris to bail.
Literary work of that kinds lives on today in many forms – Harper’s is still publishing, after all — and while everyone in the print business has been forced to reconsider practices and content, I wonder how Morris would have shaped the magazine in today’s business climate.
We aren’t allowed to carry the excess weight in our publications today like those of healthier economic times were. We’re asked to trim here and tuck there in the name of dollars, which certainly makes sense given we do this in the name of cold business first and warm nostalgic love of words and stories second (well, at least the people who hold the power do). But I do think about the advantages we have today that Morris did not.
Through the advancement of technology, we have been blessed with vehicles that can carry a product forward while also caressing the bottom line. Morris couldn’t assign Mailer a 10,000-word digital-only story that would save printing costs and be uploaded directly to our iPads (damn, that’d be awesome). He didn’t have a website where Halberstam could write a daily blog from whatever pocket of the world in which he happened to be hiding (DAMN, THAT’D BE AWESOME!!!).
There’s a long line of differences, journalistically and historical and cultural, between today’s America and the one Morris delicately describes in “New York Days.”
I learned a lot about a divisive time in our country reading “Days.” I felt like I missed out on quite a bit, too.
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