Was George Plimpton a Literary Giant?
Uh, no. Why does Philip Roth insist on arguing that he was?
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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.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.