What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 19, 2011 Issue

Of the many different types of fact pieces that appear in The New Yorker, the ones I find most irresistible concern the nature of the creative process - how life is made into art. That’s why I found the tagline of Michael Schulman’s “King’s Speech” (“Katori Hall spins theatre from a moment in history”), in this week's issue, so alluring. I immediately followed it into the story and read blissfully, raptly, without stop, right to the end. What a wonderful piece! It’s about the sources of Hall’s play The Mountaintop. I like how Schulman begins, plunging directly into the historical facts out of which the play springs:

On April 3, 1968, as thunderstorms soaked the city of Memphis, Carrie Mae Golden asked her mother if she could go out. Golden was fifteen years old and lived in a three-bedroom house on Allen Street with nine siblings and two small children of her own. There were tornado warnings across western Tennessee that night, but they didn’t deter Golden, who desperately wanted to catch a ride to Mason Street, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was due to speak.

And I like Schulman’s selection of material and the way he’s woven it together. “King’s Speech” comprehends the sanitation workers’ strike, the Poor People’s Campaign, King’s assassination, an overview of Hall’s work, a visit with Hall at her home in Southaven, attending Sunday morning service at Brown Missionary Baptist Church, a drive through the Goldens’ old neighborhood in Memphis, a viewing of the Lorraine Motel, and attendance at a rehearsal of The Mountaintop in a studio near Times Square.

I also like Schulman’s selection of details, e.g., Hall’s hair is “a spaghetti plate of dreadlocks,” the parking lot at Brown Missionary Baptist Church is so big that “we had to take a golf cart from our parking spot,” Hall’s comment, “All this history, just floatin’ away,” as she drives by some of Memphis’s numerous weed-covered lots.

Most of all, I like Schulman’s subject, a spirited playwright who has endeavored to enter into a great man’s mind, heart, and skin for the purpose of “humanizing him.” “King’s Speech” is a memorable piece. I enjoyed it enormously.

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