(Updated Oct 27, 2019)
I don’t remember how or why I came across the self-published autobiography of Robert S. Griffin, a cranky, retired college professor. I certainly forgot why I felt compelled to download it and put it in my tablet reading list, but here we are: reading it with great enjoyment, and having a lot of fun with the idle thoughts of a man who knows his time is up. It’s pretty short too, so I highly recommend it to anyone: it’s here for free. (Dead link: it’s actually here now)
This book definitely reminds me of another unexpectedly great autobiography: Travels, by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame (which is not free). In Travels, Michael Crichton explains there’s no point to his writing a description of his mostly boring and uneventful life, so he just tells a handful of stories, mostly about his travels across the world and his short, exciting time as a medical student.
In “From Old to Elderly,” Griffin starts off with a regretful description of a youth wasted on pointless sports pursuits and his sad-sack family, and then complains about random stuff and tells of interesting moments of his life and the things he saw and read. There is a bit about the once-idolized writer George Plimpton, whom he never met, which is to me a masterpiece of couldn’t-give-a-shit literary criticism, and I will copy it here in full, below this post.
By way of introduction, the Times Literary Supplement recently discussed Plimpton, in his role as co-founder and longtime editor of The Paris Review (here, behind a paywall). J.C., the anonymous contributor to the TLS’ back page, doesn’t hate Plimptom, actually kind of like him, but still has this to say:
During Plimpton’s reign, the Paris Review was a club. The issue before us lists myriad distinguished types and family members as advisory editors, editorial assistants, contributing editors, among other concoctions. Here are a few: Donald Hall, Nelson Aldrich, William Styron, Rose Styron, Dana Goodyear, Philip Roth, Matthew Bruccoli, Francine du Plessix Gray, Ben Sonnenberg, Jonathan Miller, Frederick Seidel, Sara D. Plimpton, Robert Silvers. The last, to take only one, wasn’t listed as “advisory editor” because of the advice he gave. The masthead was the assembly point of a branch of the establishment – the kind whose members invariably unite to deny its existence.
Wherever you are, thanks a lot for this here, Mr. Griffin:
I’ve been paying attention to how people who are fawned over get themselves in that position when they don’t really deserve to be that high on life’s totem pole. It’s not that these people are unaccomplished; it’s that the adulation they evoke goes beyond their actual merits. How do they pull that off? I ask myself.
For example, there’s Princess Kate in Britain. She used to fold clothes at the Gap, not there is anything wrong with that, and seems a nice enough person, and she keeps herself slim and trim and has a pleasant smile, good precision with it, upper lip exactly to the top edge of her front teeth, but really, she’s no better as far I can tell than the young women I see looking in store windows in downtown Burlington, Vermont where I live.
Of course what Kate has going for her is the princess title—or I guess actually she’s a duchess—which, princess or duchess, from what I have read, she went after pretty hard. If you can bring it off, the princesses and kings and queens and duchesses and dukes stratagem is a good one: you get you and yours designated royalty and the rest of us commoners. We get to watch you ride by in carriage. Good deal for you.
This past week, I’ve been paging through a book of reminiscences about the late George Plimpton (Nelson Aldridge, Jr., editor, George, Being George, Random House, 2008). Plimpton (1927-2003) was an American editor, author, and partyhosting man about town in New York City. He was best known for a being a co-founder and editor of The Paris Review literary magazine and for his sports writing in which he would recount his exploits as an everyman participant in big time sports.
Plimpton’s most successful book in the sports area was Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last String Quarterback, published in 1966, in which he wrote about his experiences in the training camp of the Detroit Lions pro football team. His angle was that he wasn’t there as an observer but rather as a player. He even took a couple snaps as a quarterback in one of the Lions’ pre-season games. Paper Lion was a good book and a best seller. I remember enjoying it at the time it came out.
Looking back on it now, I realize that more than anything the reader of Paper Lion comes away from the book thinking what a super guy George Plimpton is. Here he is, this Harvard man and big time literary type, and yet he gets around these rough and tumble jocks and they accept him in their world and really take to him.
Yes indeed, George Plimpton is a man for all seasons. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, I would nightly sit alone in front of a TV set in a darkened room in the Midwest munching on potato chips watching late night talk shows out of New York City—Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett in particular—and Plimpton was a regular on those shows.
Plimpton would sit on the couch or chair with Johnny or Dick in his tweed sport jacket and, without being heavy-handed about it, get across in a vaguely British accent that he was from old money and went to Harvard and went to the right parties and knew everybody that was anybody. He related amusing name-dropping anecdotes to an attentive and borderingon-reverential Johnny or Dick–as well as to me, of course.
Now that I think about it, the only thing that stuck with me from these little stories was that not only was George Plimpton a superior being compared to the rest of us, he was an upbeat, chipper, fine fellow to boot. I got that message loud and clear, but at the same time I didn’t feel as if I were being sold anything or put town. I felt fine about me being a humdrum plebeian and George Plimpton being a lively noble; that was just the way things were.
When I think about the people who have been masters of selfpuffery over the span of my long life, George Plimpton’s name is right up there at the top.
I didn’t pick up the Plimpton book this week to read it from the angle of Plimpton’s self promotion, but it couldn’t have been more that twenty pages into it and I was caught up with examining how Plimpton worked his self-inflating magic. The book has been a fun read for me, I’m not done with it yet. Techniques that went right by me back in the old days jumped out at me now.
One of them is what I’ll call the pseudo-self-effacement technique. The basic idea with this maneuver is ostensibly you’re putting yourself down, but what you are really doing is building yourself up. I’ll use a transcript of an after-dinner speech Plimpton gave in the mid-eighties that was in the book (pp. 323-326) to illustrate how the pseudo-self-effacement technique can be effectively employed. I’ll quote from Plimpton’s speech and insert my comments in caps to point out how George was selling himself even as nominally he was documenting his limitations:
I think I should start off by saying that I didn’t do very well at Exeter. I WENT TO EXETER, AN ELITE PREP SCHOOL. My marks were terrible. I’M NOT HERE PITCHING HOW GREAT I AM. I’M A MODEST, SELF-EFFACING GUY. I had the strange notion that in class, even if I were daydreaming of something else I’M CALLING IT DAYDREAMING, BUT YOU KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT ME TO GET THAT IT WAS ACTUALLY MATURE, INSIGHTFUL, CREATIVE MUSING AT A VERY YOUNG AGE, my brain was still absorbing all the material like a specialized sponge, and the next day at the exam I could scratch around in the appropriate corner, in the detritus I KNOW WORDS LIKE DETRITUS, and there would be the appropriate answers. I HAD CONFIDENCE IN MYSELF EVEN BACK THEN.
These low grades elicited letters from my father. MY FATHER CARED ENOUGH ABOUT ME TO SEND ME LETTERS. Genetically speaking, I was supposed to soar I COME FROM GOOD STOCK through Exeter I WENT TO EXETER. Wasn’t the family full of outrageous successes? I’M FROM AN OUTRAGEOUSLY SUCCESSFUL LINEAGE. THAT’S MORE THAN PARTICULARLY SUCCESSFUL, OR REMARKABLY SUCCESSFUL, OR EXCEPTIONALLY SUCCESSFUL—OUTRAGEOUSLY SUCCESSFUL, GET IT? CAN YOU HONESTLY SAY THAT ABOUT YOUR PEOPLE, OUTRAGEOUSLY SUCCESSFUL? NO, YOU CAN’T.
I hadn’t studied, but why hadn’t my brain compensated out of thin air? I DIDN’T GET BAD GRADES BECAUSE I WAS DUMB. I HADN’T STUDIED, THAT’S WHY. Somewhere in Melville’s Moby Dick is the line “my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded.” I HAVE READ MOBY DICK AND CAN QUOTE IT FROM MEMORY. Which is apt, thinking back on it, because my head when I was in Exeter I WENT TO EXETER was ever off somewhere else I WAS THINKING BIG THOUGHTS funning it up I WAS A GOOD TIME KIND OF GUY, NOT A DRUDGE with heads of the few others who were having difficulty. We beheaded few, we band of brothers. I WASN’T AN ISOLATE LONER REJECT. I WAS PART OF A BAND OF BROTHERS.
At nightfall, I went down to the Plimpton Playing Fields THIS ELITE SCHOOL HAD FACILIITIES NAMED AFTER MY FAMILY and drop-kicked field goals with Buzz Merritt I HAD FRIENDS, just the two of us in the gloaming YOU DON’T KNOW WORDS LIKE GLOAMING, often with a thin moon shining above the pines, above the river. THAT IDYLIC IMAGE WAS ME—YOU WORKED IN A CAR WASH. Why did I do this when I should have been studying Tacitus WE STUDIED TACITUS IN THIS ELITE SCHOOL I ATTENDED, WHILE YOU STUDIED HOW A BILL BECOMES A LAW IN THE ONE YOU WENT TO for the exam I knew was coming up the same day? THE ANSWER: BECAUSE I WAS INTO COOL THINGS LIKE BEING WITH MY BUDDY BUZZ—PREPPY-SOUNDING NAME, RIGHT? TOP DRAWER–KICKING FIELD GOALS UNDER A FULL MOON, NOT CRAMMING FOR AN INANE TEST LIKE YOU DIDN’T KNOW ANY BETTER THAN TO DO. Sometimes to escape the exams, I went to the infirmary. There was a secret way, which I have now forgotten, to drive up the temperature on a thermometer. CLEVER OF ME, HUH?
But what really got me in trouble were the little things I thought were funny—like sneaking in at night and turning all the benches around in the Assembly Hall because I thought it would it would be funny to have my classmates sitting backwards when they came in for assembly. I WAS ADVENTUROUS AND CREATIVE AT A VERY YOUNG AGE.
I wrote for The Exetonian I WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO WRITE FOR A LITERARY MAGAZINE AT A PLACE LIKE EXETER, I WENT TO EXETER, but if you were on probation you couldn’t use your real name. I took piano lessons from Mr. Landers. He assigned me a Debussy piece called “Bells,” as I recall. I PRACTICED PLAYING DEBUSSEY ON THE PIANO WHILE YOU LEARNED THREE CHORDS ON A GUITAR SO YOU COULD POUND OUT CHEAPASS ROCK ‘N ROLL. The next week I appeared at Mr. Landers’ quarters NOT AN OFFICE OR DESK SOMEWHERE, QUARTERS, GET THE PICTURE? and sat down to play. Mr. Landers said, “Well, that’s very fine, but that’s not Debussy’s “Bells.” I PLAYED NOT JUST FINE BUT VERY FINE PIANO, WHAT CAN’T I DO? PLUS I ADDED MY OWN INDIVIDUAL TOUCH TO IT–CREATIVE, UNIQUE, ONE-OF-A-KIND, THAT’S ME, GEORGE PLIMPTON.
I tried out for a play called Seven Keys to Ballpate. I WAS GAME, TOOK RISKS, TRIED NEW THINGS. They found a minor role for me, that of a young widow. I was required to let out an unearthly scream, perhaps at the sight of a corpse, I’ve forgotten what. My scream carried far out over the quadrangle QUADRANGLE, GET IT?, down the hill past Langdell and into the Jeremiah Smith Building CATCH THE IMPRESSIVE-SOUNDING NAMES AT THE ELITE PREP SCHOOL I WENT TO, past the mailroom with its letterboxes WHEN I DID SOMETHING, I DID IT BIG, where in those days I received my father’s letter once a week I WAS IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO MY FATHER FOR HIM TO WRITE ME ONCE A WEEK with its admonitions—and up the stairs to Dean Kerr’s office WE HAD A DEAN IN MY PREP SCHOOL; YOU HAD A PRINCIPAL IN THAT HIGH SCHOOL YOU WENT TO, where he sat comfortably smoking his pipe A PIPE–GOT THE IMAGE? when suddenly this high-pitched shriek wandered in and his blood curdled and he said aloud, “My God, what’s Plimpton up to now.” THE DEAN KNEW ABOUT ME. ONE MEMORABLE ESCAPADE AFTER ANOTHER. “MY GOD, WHAT’S PLIMPTON UP TO NOW,” THE DEAN WOULD SAY. QUITE THE TEENAGER, ME, DON’T YOU THINK?
Could it have been that, having failed in all the departments at Exeter I WENT TO EXETER, I was driven in later life to compensate, to try once again to succeed where I hadn’t? I’ve wondered on occasion whether these exercises in participatory journalism for which I am known I WROTE PAPER LION, A BEST SELLER, THAT WAS ME were as much to show my mentors at Exeter I WENT TO EXETER AND HAD MENTORS; YOU HAD A GUIDANCE COUNSELOR that I had somehow managed to intrude into the highest plateaus of their various disciplines. THE HIGHEST PLATEAU IN NOT JUST ONE DISCIPLINE, OR TWO DISCIPLINES–VARIOUS DISCIPLINES. ME, GEORGE PLIMPTON, I DID THAT. AND YOU PICKED UP THAT I WENT TO EXETER, AN ELITE EASTERN PREP SCHOOL, WITH FACILITIES NAMED AFTER MY FAMILY, RIGHT? THAT DIDN’T GET BY YOU, DID IT?
How about if you come up with an example of the pseudoself-effacement technique? I think you’ll find that it’ll be a good time, and that it will give you a better handle on how people acquire unwarranted reputations and status in the world generally and in your own circumstance.