A literary journalist’s sketch of New York

Marshall Frady (1940-2004) was a Merlin of magazine writers in the 1960s and 70s, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher who combined his daddy’s gift for metaphysical oration with an uncanny absorption of Faulkner, Agee and other high Southern literary voices.

Marshall Frady, magazine writer extraordinaire.

Marshall Frady, magazine writer extraordinaire.

You might say he was the Southern branch of New Journalism, writing luminous, hilarious articles for Life, Harper’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic and the now-defunct New Times. He also wrote novelistic biographies of George Wallace, Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr., the latter two after he came back to magazine writing with the New Yorker in the 1990s, before he fell to cancer at age 64.

When he was only 24, Frady was hired by my father for Newsweek. When I became a features editor at a doomed magazine out of Atlanta in 1989, I assigned him an essay on what it was like to move from magazine writing into TV journalism in New York for seven years, when he was chief correspondent for ABC News’ Closeup.

Assign Frady 1,000 words, and you’d get 6,000, which was about what I got. I tried to cut it back, but Southpoint editor John Huey rejected the piece even after my scrunchings.

Now, for the first time ever, I’m publishing here a small sliver of that gossamer piece, to give you Frady’s take on New York – where we’re headed on the old Southern Crescent tomorrow. [Note to journalism students: Don’t try to write like this. Rare is the writer who can manage a comprehensible 330-word sentence like this first one.]

“If the great metropolises of the American culture form something like our psychic capitols, then Manhattan – that millingly infested, ferociously impacted slip of an island steeped high with mammoth human filing cabinets – is surely America’s great Rome of Ego, capitol to the glandularly ambitious from all over the country, careers in a welter of terrific Darwinian struggle everywhere: indeed, exhaust fumes of its innumerable fierce fevers of ego, in finance, fashion, society, opinion, publishing, hanging in that dusky booming air between its crowded office-cliffs like a constant whiff of scorched electric wiring.

“But not for nothing, I soon realized, that so little real writing seems to take place there – that, in contrast to painters and actors, so few novelists actually do their work in The City: even Mailer writes from the remove of Brooklyn, which might as well be Cincinnati, of course. I’d also resolved once that it was likely baleful for any writer – this one measure of my defection now from that labor – to spend a great amount of time in New York’s pervasive community of commentators, critics, assessors, traffickers in secondary vibrations rather than the primary pulses, an estate occupied on the whole more in reacting than in making. But so bedazing is the sheer imperial power and pride of the place, before long there I was taken by the sensation that I had arrived at the very epicenter of life on the planet, the live converging of all the nerve-energies endlessly re-creating the times around it. Large events and commotions out in the land beyond Manhattan began to seem no more than a distant stirring of indistinct echoes and shadows which, filtering to The City, only there, in the charged thrumming vivid sensibilities of its editorial hives and six-p.m. bars and East Side brownstone dinner parties, found in a kind of delayed take their actual realization, their full reality. It hadn’t really happened until it reached and registered in New York.”

— Prof. Cumming

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