An older friend of mine, who was a lifelong friend of the late, great editor and writer George Plimpton, has never had occasion, thank goodness, to address me with the words “I knew George Plimpton. George Plimpton was a friend of mine. You are no . . . ” Of the many ways in which I would concede the point, the most vivid has to do with Plimpton’s famous three-rounder with the boxing champion Archie Moore. (You couldn’t get me in the ring with Mary Tyler Moore.) In “The Bout,” a memoir in this issue by Blair Fuller, who was Plimpton’s friend, fellow Paris Review editor, and corner man for the fight, the prefight tension leaves me weak-kneed each time I read it. More my speed is “Buoyancy,” a tribute to swimming by another intrepid but decidedly not jockish editor of a quarterly magazine, Willard Spiegelman. I’d go a few laps of the pool with him anytime.
AS IF THIS SORT OF comparison were not idle enough, I sometimes indulge in imaginary conversations with my two immediate predecessors. One, who made the personal essay the centerpiece of the magazine, will be happy to hear, if she is picking up these mental transmissions, that we have two lovely, affecting examples of the form in this issue. In “Intimacy,” the novelist and memoirist André Aciman recalls a time in his boyhood on a lower-middle-class street in Rome where his physical surroundings drove him to an escape through books. In “Pullovers,” a story that includes a mother’s suicide and a selfish, indifferent father, Kyoko Mori, also a fine writer of nonfiction and fiction, reflects upon her difficult girlhood in Kobe, Japan.
The other former editor with whom I carry on one-way conversations once told me in a real conversation that one of his editorial aims was not to print the name of a sitting president in the pages of the Scholar. I understand the impulse—to rise above the politically partisan, and to provide a respite from it. But I’ve failed miserably at this myself, at least if you think a president flouting the Constitution is a partisan problem and thus off-limits. Still, I’m going to step closer to that abyss by mentioning the name of a presidential candidate: Barack Obama. Vote for whomever you please, but read the novelist Charles Johnson’s essay “The End of the Black American Narrative.” Johnson’s point does not seem so different from the distinction Obama made between himself and Rev. Jeremiah Wright—that the story of black victimization, horrible and compelling as it is, no longer works for the 21st century. It no longer fits, Johnson points out, the experiences of many black Americans, who come from a range of countries and social classes. Whether or not Obama becomes our first black president, Johnson’s case for new stories that represent today’s diversity of black American experience feels both of the moment and momentous.
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