Was George Plimpton a Literary Giant?

Uh, no. Why does Philip Roth insist on arguing that he was?

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What’s with Nathan Zuckerman’s crush on George Plimpton? Readers of Exit Ghost will recognize that I’m referring to the extended critical reassessment of the late sportswriter and fireworks enthusiast that Philip Roth weaves into the climax of hisnovel. (For Stephen Metcalf’s more comprehensive assessment of Exit Ghost, click here.) Yes, I know that Plimpton was also editor of the Paris Review, an important literary magazine. But Zuckerman focuses on Plimpton the writer. Yes, I am further aware that Zuckerman, the protagonist of a series of short novels of which Exit Ghost, Roth says, will be the last, is a fictional character who should not be mistaken for the author’s proxy. Even so, Roth has always invited readers to take Zuckerman’s literary sensibility more or less at face value. Zuckerman’s ruminations about George Plimpton’s underappreciated genius therefore left me scratching my head.

I’m not the only one. “What is George Plimpton doing in this novel, whose other characters, apart from politicians, dead writers, and Norman Mailer, are presumably all fictional?” Hermione Lee asked in a New Yorker interview with Roth earlier this month. Roth replied that Plimpton is a device, a reference point by which Zuckerman identifies what he is not:

George Plimpton isn’t an active, living character in my novel—he is another dead writer and is spoken of at length by Zuckerman, a literary friend of his, as a dead writer. […] Speculating on the meaning of Plimpton’s success as America’s leading “participatory journalist,” and reflecting on the social ramifications of Plimpton’s narrative perspective and the possible connections between Plimpton’s social background and his subject matter, is hardly out of character for Zuckerman, a man whose life is books, not just writing them but uninterruptedly, over the decades, reading them and thinking about them. It is the news of Plimpton’s death the year before—of which the reclusive Zuckerman was unaware—that prompts the longish rumination on Plimpton in the last chapter of Exit Ghost and that provides Zuckerman with an opportunity to ponder the radical difference between Plimpton’s working days as a journalist occupationally engaged by the “great variety of life” and his own as a novelist, conducted of necessity alone and in silent seclusion. And prompts him to reach this conclusion: “Suddenly,” Zuckerman thinks, “my way of being had no justification, and George was my—what is the word I’m looking for? The antonym of doppelgänger.”

Well, sure. This is all spelled out rather explicitly in the novel, in Zuckerman’s own narrative voice. But what’s striking in Zuckerman’s musings is the sentimental manner in which he inflates his polar opposite’s legacy as a writer. Let me stipulate up front that I have nothing against Plimpton, whom I never met. By all accounts, he was immensely charming, generous, and high-spirited, and in the Paris Review he leaves behind a vital and necessary institution. As a writer, Plimpton was deft, and, in his most famous work, which required him to participate in and then write about professional sports, wonderfully enterprising. I have no quarrel with Zuckerman’s description of Plimpton as “a playful, debonair, deeply inquisitive man of the world.” But when Zuckerman muses about Plimpton’s “lyricism” and “gravity,” when he compares Plimpton to Mark Twain and to George Orwell—like Orwell, Zuckerman argues, Plimpton “tried to look straight at the thing and describe plainly what he saw and how it worked and so grasp hold of it for the reader”—I begin to wonder whether Roth’s creation has taken leave of his senses. Just to be clear: Plimpton was neither a font of brilliant social commentary nor a composer of sentences so perfect that, like P.G. Wodehouse, he elevated silliness to art. Nor did he, in his patrician modesty, ever pretend to be. He was a guy who wrote pretty good magazine stories, some of which he expanded into pretty good books.

Zuckerman’s fond appreciation seems all the more peculiar because the earlier Zuckerman novels were, among other things, vehicles for some very sharp cultural satire, with targets ranging from Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I  (a best-selling memoir, published in 1945 and best-remembered today for introducing the characters Ma and Pa Kettle) to—in circumscribed fashion and remarkably good taste— The Diary of Anne Frank. Plimpton, with his antique upper-class accent and his penchant for name-dropping, might have made an ideal goyische target for Roth had he been the pompous sort, which apparently he wasn’t. But neither was Plimpton anybody’s beau ideal of a writer of nonfiction. If one were to compile a list of the 20th century’s finest journalists, it’s doubtful he’d make the top 50.

The question becomes unavoidable. Is Zuckerman’s dewy assessment really Roth’s? In an interview available on NPR’s Web site (click here and search for “Philip Roth Remembers”), Robert Siegel asked whether the Plimpton rumination was as “heartfelt” as it seemed. “Yes,” Roth answered. “I admire George a great deal.”  What about the Orwell comparison? Roth repeated the same opinion he attributes to Zuckerman in the novel:

George Orwell also was what you call a participatory journalist, especially in his famous book, his first book, actually, Down and Out in Paris and London. The difference is that George Plimpton did his participating in sports and Orwell did his participating in the impoverished lowlife of Paris and London. So they turned to different places, radically different. Oh, and both Georges were gentlemen, if I can speak in terms of a gentleman, and made their excursions into worlds “beneath them,” as it were.

But Orwell shed light on class differences that had sharpness and immediacy, whereas Plimpton merely recognized the obvious point that blood-based aristocracy had become, when compared to late-20th-century celebrity, the deadest of letters. In the NPR interview, Roth praised Plimpton for his lack of condescension toward lowborn athletic prodigies, as if that were even an option. “He pretended I think sometimes to be intimidated, maybe he was intimidated … in the face of these giant athletic superstars.” Well, duh. Athletic prodigies were a Boston Brahmin’s class superiors. Plimpton knew the score (and, as Zuckerman observes, made a career out of savoring the historic irony).

After taking in Roth’s assessment, I began to wonder whether, in my prior reading of George Plimpton—much of it during my preteen years—I’d somehow missed something. So I purchased The Best of Plimpton, an anthology published a dozen years before his death. The pieces are charming. Are they classics? Er, no. I tripped across one clearly made-up fact. In the chapter about Plimpton pitching in a postseason major league baseball game, the announcer garbles his name as “George Prufrock.” That literary malapropism (Do I dare to throw a curveball?) was, I promise you, the product of Plimpton’s imagination, or perhaps that of his intellectual friend Bob Silvers (currently editor of the New York Review of Books), who is quoted repeating it. I’d feel more forgiving if the joke were less labored. A comparison of the boxer Archie Moore’s face to that of a Haitian nanny is in questionable taste, though perhaps we should make allowances for an earlier era. In his NPR interview, Roth, in recounting Plimpton’s short boxing match with Moore (which he, like Zuckerman, attended), described Moore as “a mass of murderous possibility.” That phrase is both funnier and more elegant than anything in Plimpton’s Sports Illustrated piece. A Plimpton essay that imagines Truman Capote writing in the style of Ernest Hemingway is, according to Zuckerman, the equal of Mark Twain’s classic essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Not even close. Hemingway parodies were already a tired genre when Plimpton wrote his, and he didn’t breathe new life into the form. The only funny bit was a Woody Allen-ish riff about Arthur Schlesinger throwing Gore Vidal out of the Kennedy White House onto Pennsylvania Avenue (“a long toss for anyone, but which was logical enough if you knew what a great arm Schlesinger had and how he gripped Vidal by the laces and spiraled him”).

In Exit Ghost, Roth/Zuckerman makes claims for Plimpton that would have embarrassed Plimpton, and not merely because well-born people are trained to deflect praise. Perhaps Roth was attempting to mimic Plimpton’s own generosity—to try on the mask of WASP gentility. If so, the lesson may be that Jews don’t do noblesse oblige very well. Or at least that Roth doesn’t. Consider: Roth’s extravagant praise of Plimpton prompted a Slate columnist to point out Plimpton’s shortcomings. He should have left the poor man—a solid and capable writer— well enough alone.