The Man Behind the Paris Review

As Donald Hall puts it, when a young poet is 16, he wants to be the next Dante; when he's 25, he wants to be published in the New Yorker.

Well, when a young novelist is 16, he wants to be the next Proust; when he's 25, he wants to publish a story in the Paris Review. A literary quarterly of mythical status (rivaled only by Granta, I think), the PR has introduced generations to new voices that would go on to become the voices of a generation. So I was delighted to find a sort of 'biography' of George Plimpton, one of the co-founders of the Review, on the "new arrivals" shelf of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

George, Being George, edited by Nelson Aldrich, is either a brilliant experiment in biography or a half-baked substitute. The subtitle gives some indication of the book's approach: "George Plimpton's life as told, admired, deplored, and envied by 200 friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, rivals—and a few unappreciative observers." The book is a collection of vignettes from Plimpton's friends, associates, and even a few enemies--which, given his stature and charm as a "networker," pretty much amounts to a who's who in American letter and New York "Society." I have to admit, I had a hard time getting through the first chapter, but only because I have such visceral negative reactions to the lives of privileged East Coast Brahmins. And yet one can't help feeling that if you ran into Plimpton outside these contexts, you'd never guess he was heir to such privilege--that he was equally comfortable among the bohemians in post-war Paris and in the environs of the Vanderbilt mansion. Indeed, even if a few of his "detractors" are heard here, one comes away with the impression that Plimpton was just a helluva nice guy. But most interesting to me were the chapters that charted the emergence of the Paris Review in post-war Paris, after Plimpton had spent some time in Cambridge--on a shoe-string, regularly hanging of the precipice of collapse, torn between a Paris office and a New York center of gravity, but then growing into a stable, flagship quarterly.

At times the book's methodology felt like a punt--that this collection of reminiscences is really just the raw material that should have been the spine or skeleton of a proper biography. And yet the methodology completely sucked me in: you can read this stuff all day, and there is a certain rawness to these reflections which have an immediacy that feels almost oral. So perhaps rather than being a punt, the book hits a home run.