Calvin Trillin is 80, and his career is now largely in the hands of the repackagers. Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, an anthology of his wittier journalism and poetry, appeared in 2011. That same year, the University of Texas Press issued Trillin on Texas, a collection that seemed to me to be carving the brisket a bit thin — though not as thinly as Ecco has been slicing Charles Bukowski’s old work into new books with titles like On Cats and On Love. In terms of Bukowski, I’m holding out for “On Schlitz.”
Trillin’s new book is another raid on the archives of The New Yorker, where he has been on staff since 1963. It is titled Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America. Not everything in it is top shelf. Some of the early articles are tentative and straightforwardly reportorial; Trillin was still finding his voice.
But everything in Jackson, 1964 resonates. The book builds, and the payoffs in some of its later pieces (the most recent is from 2008) are generous. The volume is more than a history lesson. The issues it considers — police shootings, voter suppression tactics, race-based acts of terrorism — seem taken from today’s headlines. We’ve come so far, yet we haven’t come very far at all.
This book appears at an interesting time. In April, Trillin got the gang-gong on Twitter after The New Yorker published one of his urbane and satirical poems, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” It poked fun at chasers of ethnic food trends, and read in part: “But then food from Szechuan came our way/Making Cantonese strictly passe.”
This doggerel was groan-inducing, as Trillin’s verse can be. (Groaning at his poems, oddly, has long been one of the pleasures of reading them.) But tone-deafness was mistaken, by those eager to be outraged, for racism and xenophobia. This hurt to watch. It wasn’t merely a poem that was being misunderstood. It was a career, one that has frequently been spent on the moral front lines.
One of the topics Trillin picks up in Jackson, 1964 is the difficulty he and other reporters had, in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere during the 1960s, in trying to maintain a semblance of professional detachment while reporting on the civil rights movement.
He tried, when he could, to play things down the middle. But he writes in his introduction, “I couldn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides — the side that thought, for instance, that all American citizens had the right to vote and the side that thought that people acting on such a belief should have their houses burned down — had an equally compelling case to make.”
At a commemoration of the Freedom Rides 50 years after they occurred, Trillin realized that he’d been more of a participant than he’d thought at the time. “I greeted John Lewis, a sharecropper’s son who had grown up to be a congressman, more like an old comrade-in-arms than like someone I’d mentioned in a couple of articles,” he writes.
The pieces in Jackson, 1964 are not all set in the South. Trillin watches National Guard patrols stream nightly through black neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1968. He reports on attempts to desegregate Denver’s schools in 1969. From Provo, Utah, in 1970, he writes drolly about racism at Brigham Young University. He notices a Mormon pamphlet, displayed in the college bookstore, titled Civil Rights — Tool of Communist Deception.
In a ruefully funny piece of reporting, he writes about a Boston disco that was sued in 1976 for barring most blacks from entering. Watching the club’s British and “richly mustachioed” owner explaining his position in court, Trillin writes, “He seemed constantly just on the edge of saying, ‘See here, my good man!’”
Trillin has a knack for summing people up in an evocative line or two. Where one writer might remark that a prosecutor is known for his scruples, Trillin writes, in a 1975 piece about a police shooting in Seattle, about one who “had a reputation as the sort of officeholder who would probably return a bottle-shaped Christmas package without even opening it to check the brand.”
One must-read article in this collection, a dispatch from New Orleans in 1964, is titled “The Zulus.” It’s about protests against the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a black organization that holds a Mardi Gras parade each year in blackface, handing out coconuts while dressed like savages. This parade seemed problematic to many in 1964. Perhaps surprisingly, it is now seen as a treasured New Orleans tradition.
Trillin describes many brave people in his book, people who took stands that had consequences. Others were less courageous. A black lawyer in New Orleans in 1960 tells him: “I keep hearing about white people who say they’ve been working behind the scenes. Yes, sir. It must be getting mighty crowded back there, behind the scenes.”
Trillin respects those who spoke out early, but his book is melancholy on the topic of what happened to many of them. “As I look back at those people who did stand up onstage,” he writes, “it occurs to me that a lot of them did not survive the period well. Some of them were driven from their hometowns. Some of them found their personal lives unraveling under the tension.”
Jackson, 1964 is a memorial of sorts. It contains the names of many forgotten figures in the civil rights struggle. The biggest honor Trillin paid these men and women was to write about them so honestly and so well. These pieces have literary as well as historical merit, and they will continue to be read for the pleasure they deliver as well as for the pain they describe.
Will the Trillin repackagings keep coming? I hope so. What some argue is his best book, Killings (1984), was one of these. It’s his Nebraska, to put it in Springsteen terms. Even though he’s written several quasi memoirs, Trillin has never been the type to spill his guts. The book you really want from this self-effacing man is the one he’ll never write: “Trillin on Trillin.”
Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America
By Calvin Trillin
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