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Truly, a literary lion

George Plimpton, author of 'Paper Lion,' made his biggest imprint with the Paris Review.

September 27, 2003|Mark Rozzo | Special to The Times

"There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante, because it looks as though I'm having too much fun. I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun."

This quote from George Plimpton appears as a kind of epigram on the late author's Web site, and it makes for a fitting postscript. Plimpton, the patrician prankster known best, perhaps, for his 1966 bestseller "Paper Lion," in which he chronicled his brief exploits in a Detroit Lions uniform and inaugurated an ensuing American tradition of "participatory journalism," died on Thursday at age 76 in his Upper East Side townhouse overlooking the East River.

It's the same Manhattan townhouse from which Plimpton ran a freewheeling salon for nearly half a century, where the likes of William Styron and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis shared parlor space with various sports figures, former Playboy bunnies and even the occasional marijuana merchant. Plimpton spoke with easygoing expertise about everything and anything in the sonorous cadence of genteel Old New York, but, as a host and as a writer (not to mention trapeze artist and New York fireworks commissioner), his tastes were decidedly democratic and tended toward benign mischief.

Plimpton's sensibility was vividly embodied in the Paris Review, the lively quarterly that had no qualms about featuring Faulkner and Hemingway side by side with virtual unknowns. Husbanded by Plimpton since its founding in 1953, this most iconic of the "little magazines" is his enduring accomplishment, and the one that will secure his legacy as not only America's leading literary gadabout but as a visionary man of letters too.

A mere 10,000 people read the Paris Review with regularity, and the fact that it even exists is vaguely miraculous: a financial report from 2001 famously estimated the magazine's resources at just $1.16. But hemmed in by such brawnily rooted (and increasingly bottom-line driven) titans as the New Yorker on one side, and a weedy tangle of youthful upstarts spawned from the Paris Review's far-flung seed on the other (McSweeney's, Open City), Plimpton's review continues to insinuate itself -- like a tenacious vine -- into virtually every corner of American literary life.

Plimpton's passing corresponds with the 50th anniversary of the Paris Review, which was celebrated this past summer with the publication of (deep breath) "The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953," a suitably whopping treasury. More than 750 pages, the book confirms, over and over, Plimpton's uncanny eye as an editor and delivers upon the promise of its prolix title.

It is a compendium of the best traditions of the magazine, which published the works of as-yet unsung writers and interviews with the masters discussing their craft, from T. Coraghessan Boyle's irresistible "The Hector Quesadilla Story," about a mythical dugout journeyman whose belly is as soft as cheese but whose determination is still as steely as ever, to Donald Barthelme's time-capsule postcard from the sexual revolution, "Alice," excerpted from the landmark novel of the same name. Or Jorge Luis Borges' "Funes the Memorious," the short story that launched a million dorm-room conversations about the nature of fiction.

Across 50 years, Plimpton was the first to publish the wide-ranging likes of Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac (the magazine extended no snobbery or snubs to the Beats), Mona Simpson and V.S. Naipaul. He gave his readers early glimpses of Jay McInerney, David Foster Wallace, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody ... the list seems endless.

But he is just as widely known for the ground-breaking Writers at Work feature of the magazine, in which he interviewed the likes of E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

In these he offered glimpses into the working and drinking, procrastinating and womanizing (or manizing) habits of Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, A.S. Byatt, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Italo Calvino and countless more, doing away with pieces filtered through critics and academics.

In a mischievous "manifesto," written in the form of a letter printed in the first issue of the Paris Review, spring 1953, Styron lamented that "literary magazines seem today on the verge of doing away with literature, not with any philistine bludgeon but by smothering it under the weight of learned chatter." The idea, Styron went on, was to keep out the kind of people who like to use "words like Zeitgeist."

It was a wise choice, and one which Plimpton adhered to for 50 years. On college campuses, the Paris Review is a perennial balm to English majors seeking shelter from having to muse endlessly about the postness of post-structuralism.

These days, the Paris Review is supported by a foundation, which, one hopes, will continue to support Plimpton's endeavor into perpetuity, or, at least, for another half century. The previous 50, as documented in this year's anthology, have provided no drought of opportunities for greatness, despite the continual drone about how today's writers are incapable of churning out the next King Lear.

With apologies to Styron, you could say that Plimpton's Paris Review has had and, with any luck, will continue to have -- the zeitgeist pretty well covered. You might even say that it's the greatest little magazine in the world, and for that, we can all thank George Plimpton.

Mark Rozzo writes the First Fiction column for The Times' Sunday Book Review.

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