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Literary N.Y.C. in the '60s : NEW YORK DAYS, By Willie Morris (Little, Brown: 400 pp., $24.95)

September 05, 1993|Michael Swindle | Michael Swindle, a free-lance writer based in New Orleans, grew up in Mississippi

"I came to the city, and it changed my life."

With this deceptively simple sentence, Willie Morris begins "New York Days," a book he offers as sequel to "North Toward Home," his "autobiography in mid-passage" published a quarter of a century ago.

The city, of course, is New York City, the Big Apple, or, as Morris called it in his earlier book, "The Big Cave." And the life that was changed had not exactly been an uneventful one: an idyllic childhood and adolescence in Yazoo City, Miss., pop. 7,000, from which town spread northward the fecund and vast and enigmatic Mississippi Delta, which has been called the "most Southern place on Earth," with all the good baggage (the land, the people) and bad baggage (race) a phrase like that must travel with; college years in the early 1950s at the University of Texas, where by his senior year he was courting not only beauty queens but also controversy as the nonconformist editor of the "Daily Texan" in those days of the "silent majority"; and in 1960, after four years as a Rhodes Scholar, returning to the Lone Star State to assume the editorship of "The Texas Observer," a free-wheeling newspaper that tangled regularly with the oil and gas big-boys and hard-nosed politicians, including then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In this second memoir, Morris takes us into the heady literary world of New York City in the 1960s--"a time in which everyone seemed to know everyone else and where everything of importance seemed to happen first"--but his story of those days doesn't move in a strictly linear way. Like memory itself, the narrative indulges tangents here and there, or circles back to embellish certain episodes, before plunging onward in a prose style at times approaching the Biblical.

He summons up boyhood memories of Yazoo City during World War II, or his days at Oxford, where on one particular afternoon the Joshua Reynolds stained-glass windows in the chapel off the quadrangle were almost destroyed because of the author's passion for baseball.

The primary focus, however, is on his years at Harper's, the country's oldest magazine. He went to work for that venerable publication in 1962, and was groomed to take over the helm. In the spring of 1967, at the age of 32, he became the eighth editor of the magazine, the youngest in its (then) 117-year history.

Speaking of his predecessor, Jack Fischer, Morris says he was "known throughout publishing circles in the city, among contributors around the country, for his parsimony, which may have been one reason why a disproportionate number of Harper's articles were written by rich people, diet faddists, housewives, dilettantes who indulged in quaint foreign travel, and verbose retired professors and diplomats, too often grindingly arid."

That situation would change in a big way under Morris' editorship. His vision was of a magazine "that had to be read, to take on the 'Establishment,' to assume the big dare, to move out to the edge, to make people mad, to edify and arouse and entertain, to tell the truth."

To help him realize this mission, Morris hired four contributing editors, "a euphemism for staff writers": 33-year old David Halberstam, who had already made a name for himself writing about the Vietnam War for the New York Times and would go on to greater fame as one of the major writers of his generation, probably best known for his "The Best and the Brightest," which had its genesis at Harper's; the outrageous Texan, Larry L. King, whose many intimate and moving and hilarious essays for Morris were collected in book form, and who later became a zillionaire with his play, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"; Brooklyn native John Corry, a former reporter for the New York Times, who had a fascination with the '60s and an uncanny ability to write about that decade's various manifestations from an unpredictable angle; and Marshall Frady, a preacher's son from Georgia, who had worked for Time and the Saturday Evening Post and whose political portrait, "Wallace," remains a classic on the aberrations of Southern politics.

A list of the other writers Morris attracted to Harper's reads like a Who's Who in American Letters. Among their number were George Plimpton, James Dickey, Bernard Malamud, Arthur Miller, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Larry McMurtry, C. Vann Woodward, Alfred Kain, Pauline Kael, John Updike, Truman Capote, Herbert Gold, Jerzy Kosinski, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, William Styron, Irwin Shaw, W. H. Auden, Gay Talese, Joe McGinnis, Seymour Hersh, J. Anthony Lukas, Robert Coles and Bill Moyers (Morris' old classmate at the University of Texas).

And by no means last or least, Norman Mailer, who is tied inextricably to Morris' destiny at Harper's.

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