Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Why the New Yorker
Is As Good As It Gets

The current (April 17th) issue of the New Yorker will probably always be best remembered for "The Iran Plans," Seymour Hersh's latest masterpiece of reporting on the worst national security outrages by the Bush White House. Since its publication, it's made news everywhere, not so much because it broke the story that the adminstration is seriously gearing up for a war with Iran--the piece itself quotes from several earlier reports by such publications as the Washington Post to that effect--but because it brought all of the threads of this story together so forcefully and coherently, and of course also because the uniquely impressive body of Hersh's lifetime work stands behind it. For a comprehensive online archive of the magazine's coverage of the current Iraq conflict, which includes all of Hersh's work on the topic but so much more as well, click here. And you might also be interested in this piece from Foreign Policy magazine, which drew considerable traffic after Hersch mentioned it admiringly.

That article notwithstanding, one mark of the greatness of this magazine--despite my earlier cooing over The Atlantic, I still think the New Yorker remains, hands-down, the best magazine of all--is how it managed to publish in the same issue another equally memorable piece, a luminous profile of the folk singer Pete Seeger. It's written by staff writer Alec Wilkinson, who has a faintly unfamiliar byline, at least compared to many of his better-known colleagues in that murderer's row of a writing staff. But this latest piece is so wonderful, so deeply reported and delicately written, that I'll be sure to read everything I ever see again under that byline.

Since it's not online, and since I wouldn't want to ruin it for you anyway, I just want to give you a flavor of how good it is, in hopes that you'll go and find it somewhere (perhaps even subscribe to the magazine if you don't already). It contains one long and beautifully rendered paragraph that reads like a wonderful short profile within the larger profile. If you read nothing but this paragraph, you would still come away with a pretty good idea of the man.

Seeger is 86--he was born in May of 1919. He and his wife, Toshi, who is half Japanese, live in Beacon, New York, about sixty miles north of Manhattan. They have been married for more than 63 years. Their house is remote and surrounded by woods. Seeger chops wood almost every day and complains when he can't. The woods around the house are so clean that it is as if someone had gone through them with a broom. Trying to recall a name or a fact, he sometimes places his hand over his forehead and closes his eyes. When he speaks at any length, he tends to look into the middle distance, as if reading the words there. He has a sharp nose and full, round cheeks. His eyes are blue and heavily lidded and so small that he seems to be regarding a person from some remove. His conversation passes quickly from one subject to another, as if many things were occuring to him at once. He never aspired to a career as a singer, and he dislikes being so well known. Celebrity, he thinks, comes for most people at the expense of others, whose accomplishments are more practical and serious. He and Bruce Springsteen met several years ago, either at a tribute to Woody Guthrie or at the Grammys; Springsteen thinks the former, and Seeger the latter. Seeger is pleased that Springsteen, whom he regards as a friend, has recorded songs from his past--he thinks they're good songs, and he is gratified by the thought that people will hear them--but he is not looking forward to the mail and the attention that will follow. He has work he wants to do. He gets so many letters as it is that he can answer them only with postcards. His nature is almost unflaggingly hopeful, but a line of melancholy runs through it. Once, after a performance in Spain that didn't go well, he worte in a journal, "I seem to stagger about this agonized world as a clown, dressed in unhappiness, hoping to reach the hearts and minds of the young. When newspaper reporters ask me what effect my songs have, I try and make a brave reply, but I am really not so certain."

I love this passage for many reasons, not least among them because it manages to say something new and fresh about an iconic figure who's already been written about many times. But also because the language is stripped down and so clean. Bad and even mediocre writing tends to try to be fancy, while great writing such as this piece manages to evoke mental pictures through great observation and masterly selection of telling details. Pieces such as this work so well because they successfully do perhaps the hardest thing of all in writing--they usher the writer off stage and out of view, so that all of the attention is on the subject. It's a feat far harder to accomplish than it might sound. And Wilkinson carries it off with a light minimalist touch, nicely consistent with its subject, a simple man of quiet power and dignity. The article's ending may leave you in awe (at least it did with me). Just do yourself a favor and read it sometime.


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