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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

Wonderful Work by a Reporter at Large   

Friends Talking in the Night: Sixty Years of Writing for The New Yorker

By Philip Hamburger
Alfred A. Knopf
448 pages; $30


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Imagine a job description that goes something like this. Wanted: writer for one of the world's classiest magazines. Assignment: complete editorial freedom to go wherever you wish and write as you please. Tenure: six decades or so.

It sounds irresistible, and to his and our good fortune, Philip Hamburger didn't resist when Harold Ross lured him to The New Yorker in 1939. I think we can say without hyperbole that few journalists have ever had a better job.

In this volume, Hamburger shows off a large assortment of the resulting pieces, drawn from familiar New Yorker genres: Talk of the Town, Reporter at Large, "casuals," Profiles, foreign correspondence, and movie, music and television criticism, among others.

Enjoyable to write, pleasurable to read, they embody The New Yorker's style and tone. They are droll and understated, tweedy and urbane, companionable and, as the title aptly suggests, conversational. Yet, like the magazine itself, they also have a tad of distance and coolness, a subtle, inoffensive whiff of Big Apple archness.

Interestingly, Hamburger includes several pieces in which he mimics other authors' styles (J. P. Marquand, Harold Pinter, the New York Times op-ed page), and it occurred to me halfway through the book that he has such a finely pitched ear that he had masterfully, whether consciously or not, blended The New Yorker's voice with his own.

Recent years, of course, have seen the evolution of The New Yorker into a magazine more on point and on news, but Hamburger's pieces take us back to its more leisurely, whimsical and epistolary heritage.

Consider "Winter Walk," from 1957: "Last week, we took a winter walk, finding ourself, almost before we knew it, down in the old part of Manhattan.... On the way back, it began to snow, and we watched Manhattan, its lights on by now, move toward us through a silvery swirl of flakes."

Hamburger stitches the sights and sounds of everyday life into rich and artful word pictures. Whether he is "In Bed with a Cold," relishing "Sunday in the Park," or observing Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration ("We Have Nothing to Fear..."), he has a sure feel for life's heartbeat moments.

He also has his serious side. He contemporaneously saw the brilliance of Edward R. Murrow's 1954 dissection of Joseph McCarthy ("an extraordinary feat of journalism"). His essay on watching the 1952 Democratic convention on television makes powerful reading in this age of cynicism and detachment: "...the important thing was one's sense of participation in matters that concern one deeply. Television, covering affairs of this sort, makes the viewer a member of a community vastly larger than his own without demanding that he sacrifice any of his individuality."

In criticism, Hamburger could be merciless. "The Metropolitan [Opera] laid another of its big, heavy eggs last week," began one review. Somewhat surprisingly and extremely, he hated Allen Funt's "Candid Camera" on television. "Mr. Funt bases his program, purely and simply, upon deceit.... For my money, 'Candid Camera' is sadistic, poisonous, anti-human, and sneaky."

But mostly Hamburger is a gentler soul, a prose poet of the quotidian, bringing a smile or nod or tingle of recognition. This is a delightful book, and you should sit back, relax and enjoy it. But let me end with a small heresy. Hamburger was blessed with extraordinary freedom, an undeadlined portfolio and the trust of legendary editors. What he wrote was good. Very, very good.

But to my eye there is no single masterwork here. Given his talent and enviable assignments, it seems there should be. Goodness knows, most writers don't get enough indulgence. Perhaps even gifted writers need the challenging prod to elevate their work from the fine to the sublime.