Between The Lines.
by Dan Wakefield.
New American Library. 274 pp. $5.95.
Macaulay once estimated the lifespan of his essays, articles, and reviews—what today would be called his “pieces”—to be at most six weeks after their initial appearance in print. In his particular case, of course, he could not have been more wrong, since the “pieces” have survived as the Literary Essays and the Historical Essays. But in general, an estimated longevity of six weeks for most journalistic work is probably not far from accurate. Implicitly, at least, Dan Wakefield would seem to agree. I say “implicitly” because in Between the Lines, a selection of his work over the past decade, Wakefield has done more than merely dredge up his favorite pieces and slosh them together into just another collection. He has gone considerably further and strung a running commentary through them—on the order of that devised by Norman Mailer in Advertisements for Myself—reviewing the part each article has played in his own continuing education. The result for which he strives, he tells us, “is an illuminating mixture of autobiography, confession, and criticism, constructed around reports I have published, unified only by the ‘I’ who is behind them all, and the effort of the particular ‘I’ to inquire as closely as possible into the elusive truth of the scene and situation.”
Before going on to inquire into the success of this venture, let me say that I consider Dan Wakefield to be one of the better journalists writing in America today; and by journalist I have in mind what Edmund Wilson means when he calls himself that: someone who makes his living writing for magazines. Wakefield is what is known in the trade as a “free-lance.” Rather than writing from his study and out of his head, the free-lance generally reports on events or subjects at first-hand. He usually has no specialty, but skips around to whatever subject happens to interest him—or the editors who will pay for his work—at the moment. Thus, for an article on marijuana Wakefield attended a number of pot parties and also drew on his own previous, and not very felicitous, experience with the drug. Thus, too, instead of producing elaborate condemnations and analyses of racial injustice in Mississippi, he covered the Emmett Till murder trial. And for an earlier book on the Puerto Ricans in New York, Island in the City, he lived in Spanish Harlem for an extended period.
The resulting reportage varies in quality. Some of the pieces have retained their interest, notably Wakefield's report on Spain and an account of his reactions to poverty in Hazard, Kentucky. Others, however, serve to confirm Macaulay's prediction, and seem to have been shriveled by time. At any rate, I found it hard to work up more than a vague, almost antiquarian interest in articles such as those dealing with a Jack Kerouac poetry reading eight years ago at the Village Vanguard; the libel suit brought against James Jones by a man named Joseph Angelo Maggio; and Carmine De Sapio's 1959 campaign in the Village. What is of consistent interest, though, is the commentary surrounding the various pieces, and nowhere is it more interesting than in those portions in which Wakefield talks about the free-lance life.
That commentary begins with a rather desultory essay entitled “The Shadow Unmasked,” which sketches out the plan for Between the Lines and offers an account of Wakefield's apolitical, non-literary, relatively trauma-free upbringing in Indianapolis. The “Shadow”of the title derives from the comment of a friend who, after Wakefield had published a number of pieces on Israel in which he had figured as “the stranger,” asked: “Who do you think you are, The Shadow?”
Which brings us to the first of the arguments in Between the Lines, an argument centering around Wakefield's disdain for journalistic pretensions at objectivity and his belief in the journalist's right to appear before the reader in his own person. Wakefield claims that the pieces which gave him the most pleasure were those in which he “had worked up to the admission and use of the I,” and in support of the first-person approach he cites such distinguished works as James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. He makes it amply clear he would prefer The Shadow to be gone; and if he had his way he would bid goodday also to “the visitor,” “the observer,” and “the stranger.”
On the face of it, this does not seem to be much of a problem. As with fiction, so with journalism—why not let the material suggest the technique? If a given piece is best written in the first person, why not write it in the first person; if in the third, then why not use the third? Yet things are not quite so simple. Although Wakefield doesn't come right out and say so, the fact is that most magazine editors are quite wary of anything that does not fit their formula ideas of what constitutes a good magazine piece. (After inviting me to write for his journal, such an editor once informed me: “There are five basic leads into any article,” and proceeded to enumerate them.) The use of the first person, however, implies a personal and possibly idiosyncratic approach, a clear admission that the writer is recording his own impressions, and not necessarily those of anyone else. While subject to abuses, the first-person approach has the virtue of modesty; it says, in effect, “Here is the way I see this subject,” and not, “Here is the way it is.” Such modesty frequently runs counter to the tone expected by editors. Wakefield, for example, was originally sent to report on poverty in Hazard, Kentucky, by a mass-circulation magazine, only to find that the available formulas could not contain his strong reactions to what he saw. When, he tells us, the magazine rejected the piece he turned out, he sat down and rewrote it in the first person and proceeded to publish it in COMMENTARY.1
Having outgrown the sterilities of formula journalism, Wakefield has also refused to settle for the comfortable life of the specialist, which is another of the dangers and temptations of the free-lance life. People are evidently not aware of the rapidity with which the good journalist can assimilate a great deal of material on a given subject—it is one of the talents learned on the job—and how astonishingly easy it is to become “the leading expert” on whatever one has written about most recently. Wakefield tells us that after Island in the City appeared, he found himself a “specialist” on the Puerto Ricans. But despite what one gathers were numerous offers, he wrote only one more piece on the subject and then vowed never to turn to it again.
Shrugging off the mantle of the expert, along with such handsome titles as “social critic” or (more pompous yet) “social analyst,” Wakefield remains determinedly the free-lancer, and manages to make his way of life seem quite attractive. “To be able to indulge himself in the things that interest him, to be able to travel to distant lands and events, are of course among the great privileges and rewards of the free-lance writer. He may not be able to cover all the things he would like to, but at least he can often refuse to do those things that fail to interest him. No regular boss can assign him to a subject that bores him to death. In this way the free-lance writer is indeed free.”
But even in this way, one must add, there are limits to the freelancer's freedom; like the rest of us, he is beset by such vulgar necessities as paying for food, clothing, and shelter. “In a decade of living as a free-lance writer,” Wakefield informs us, with a candor unusual even in the offices of the Internal Revenue Service, “I have made between three thousand and eight thousand dollars a year.” This hardly makes Wakefield—who is still in his early thirties—a candidate for the poverty program, but it does seem to preclude anything more than a rather ascetic existence.
Wakefield's candor about money is also interesting because he has on occasion been criticized for writing for such magazines as Esquire, Playboy, and Mademoiselle. Wakefield calls this textural criticism, about which he remarks: “It was considered that when my words were transferred from rough-grained to slick paper they in some subtle way lost their ‘seriousness.’” From the free-lancer's point of view, it would be foolish to refuse to write for the slicks, since in fact he could not hope to survive on the lesser sums paid him by the smaller magazines. Wakefield himself has but two criteria for writing for any magazine, and these seem to me impeccable: (1) whether he can say in its pages what he pleases and in the way he pleases; and (2) whether it will pay him sufficiently to keep him alive while researching and writing the article. When Wakefield says that both Esquire and Playboy meet both conditions, I, for one, am ready to believe him.
That said, however, I think it of some interest to add that of the nineteen pieces Wakefield has chosen to reprint in Between the Lines, only two originally appeared in the slicks: the Playboy article on marijuana, and “Can a Girl from a Small Mining Town?,” an Esquire piece about the struggles of the nouveaux riches to establish themselves in Society. What is more, neither one is up to Wakefield's best writing; or at least in neither is his own voice as readily identifiable as it is in most of his other work. Both pieces are examples of the highly sophisticated, rather racy reporting that is becoming the hallmark of a certain kind of slick article. Such articles allow the use of the first person, but they generally do not allow room for the values, emotions, or sympathies of the man behind the “I.” In this kind of article, Wakefield's struggle to work up to the admission of the first person seems to have resulted in nothing more than the right to exercise a grammatical option.
In fact, the evidence of Between the Lines raises the question of whether the new openness of the slicks has any greater cultural significance than making it possible for some writers to live a bit more comfortably. That they are more open seems to me unarguable; for the cultural leveling—some would call it the cultural revolution—going on in America these days is nowhere more evident than in these magazines. Yet all that seems to have changed is the breadth—not the depth—of their interest.
I am not suggesting that good work isn't possible in the slicks; only that it isn't demanded. Wakefield's Playboy article on marijuana, for instance, is a kind of romp. It relates something of the history of the drug, telling how and by whom it was used and what it has been called over the years; it goes on to describe those who use it today and with what effects; it ends by noting that so long as one can still go to jail for having it in one's possession, one should probably stay away from it. Which is fine as far as it goes, except that it does not go far enough. When Dan Wakefield is at his best, as in the piece on Hazard, the reader is accustomed to go the distance.
1 “In Hazard,” September 1963.