Introduction

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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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, June 14, 2012

Interesting Emendations: Whitney Balliett's "Super Chops"



Recently, researching an article I’m writing (tentatively titled “Paper Rooms: The Art of Interior Description in New Yorker Profiles”) for this blog, I reread Whitney Balliett’s wonderful "Super Chops" (The New Yorker, January 29, 1979), a profile of jazz pianist, Dave McKenna. It contains the following vivid description of a bar’s interior:

The summer after Maddow’s death, McKenna went into the Lobster Boat, several miles down Route 28 toward Hyannis. It has a huge white mock ship’s prow that points into a parking lot that runs along the highway. Behind the prow are a lozenge-shaped lounge and a big, boxy dining room. The lounge has a bar and a small bandstand opposite, which holds an upright piano. The wall back of the bandstand is curved and contains a couple of dozen portholes, each of them fitted out with a hanging plant. The piano bench is flanked by carriage lamps fastened to the wall, and there are candlesticks on the piano and a glass chandelier over it. The ceiling is beamed and decorated with signal flags and ship’s wheels, and the patrons sit below in a comfortable rummage shop furnished with sofas, director’s chairs, captain’s chairs, overstuffed chairs, side tables, and standing lamps. It is three New England parlors placed end to end.

This passage is an excellent example of the type of detailed interior description that I want to consider in my “Paper Rooms” piece. Mindful of Balliett’s penchant for revision, I compared the New Yorker “Super Chops” with the version included in his great 1986 collection American Musicians. I discovered a number of interesting changes. For example, the magazine piece begins, “Some lives pivot on paradox”; whereas, the American Musicians version starts with, “Like his friend and great admirer Bobby Hackett, Dave McKenna’s life pivots on paradox.” The magazine version describes McKenna as “a man-mountain, whose perfect proportions contain a massive eagle’s head, a logger’s forearms, and hot-dog fingers.” The book version deletes “whose perfect proportions contain.” Its description is as follows: “McKenna is a man-mountain. He has a massive eagle’s head, a logger’s forearms, and hot-dog fingers.” The description of McKenna’s music, in the New Yorker version, includes this line: “The rock-rock, rock-rock, rock-rock of his time becomes irresistible: it is hypnotic, ecstatic.” In the book version, this is trimmed to “The rock-rock, rock-rock, rock-rock of his time is hypnotic.”

The depiction of the Lobster Boat’s interior, quoted above, remains unchanged. But another of my favorite passages – a description of McKenna’s style, as he duets with Teddy Wilson – has been altered. In the magazine, Balliett wrote, “It is a joyous, triumphant, foraging style, and by the end of Wilson and McKenna’s second number it was clear that McKenna was helplessly blowing Wilson out of the water.” In American Musicians, “triumphant” and “helplessly” are cut, and the line simply reads, “It is a joyous, foraging style, and by the end of Wilson and McKenna’s second number it was clear that McKenna was blowing Wilson out of the water.” Adjectives have been deleted from several other lines in the book version, as well. It appears that Balliett’s revisions were aimed at making the piece leaner. I find the American Musician’s version slightly preferable. But there’s one line that I wish Balliett hadn’t changed. It’s a description of Teddy Wilson’s technique:

Wilson would effect an almost transparent pointillistic chorus, and then McKenna, his left hand rolling and rumbling, would roar into his chorus, and all memory of what Wilson had just played would be gone.

In American Musicians, this is changed to:

Wilson would effect resplendent chorus, and then McKenna, his left hand rolling and rumbling, would roar into his chorus, and all memory of what Wilson had just played would be gone.

Why did Balliett change “an almost transparent pointillistic” to “resplendent”? Perhaps the use of the qualifier “almost” bothered him. But, it seems to me, in scrapping “transparent pointillistic,” he sacrificed an inspired description of Wilson’s delicate, subtle style. 

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