The talent of an American lyricist
CALVIN TRILLIN made his reputation over four decades as the author of “US Journal” in the New Yorker, reporting extensively about serious and often tragic subjects such as race relations and crime. He was also among the first writers to grasp that American cuisine is a good way to understand the nation’s vigorous and various cultures. But Mr Trillin is incapable of resisting the temptation of comedy. The jokes kept on welling up and Mr Trillin made a parallel reputation as a writer of funny stuff.
He belongs to a tradition that included distinguished journalists such as Art Buchwald in the Washington Post, and Russell Baker at the New York Times. Each might regard the idea as risible, but their ability to deflate the reputations of self-important politicians and men of business makes classy moralists of them.
The title of this collection of his humorous writings is the first of many jokes. Mr Trillin makes fun of the arrival in the Port of Galveston, Texas, in 1908, from somewhere “near Kiev”, of his father and his Uncle Benny. Apparently, Jacob Schiff, an eminent German Jewish banker was embarrassed by the poor, huddled masses from eastern Europe cluttering up New York at the time and financed the detour to the south-west. The thought is rather appalling, but Mr Trillin makes it work for him: “You can say what you want to about my Uncle Benny, but he never made his living as a money lender.”
Although Mr Trillin graduated from Yale University (his father encouraged him to go east having read Owen Johnson’s 1911 tale, “Stover at Yale”), he was brought up in Kansas City, Missouri. This led him to found the Missouri School of Poetry, with a membership of two—himself and T.S. Eliot, who was born in St Louis. In truth, he is more at home in the School of Ogden Nash of Rye, New York.
Mr Trillin describes himself as a “Deadline Poet” because of the rhyming verses he contributes regularly to the Nation. Happily, there are pages of them in this book. One sample, after a headline in the New York Times: “SEC Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal”:
They’re doing God’s work, their CEO said.
They’re the kings of the Street.
They are regal.
So now we must ask if God ever knew
That some of his work was illegal.