For years I clipped Murray Kempton’s columns from New York Newsday and filed them chronologically in manila folders. My fingers left the folders smeared with ink from the newsprint, confirming the old cliché about “ink-stained wretches.” Those folders and hundreds of others are crammed into my green file cabinet in the garage. On Monday I was looking for something else when I came upon the Kempton files. I pulled out several, intending to idly browse, and ended up browsing the evening away. The passage quoted at the top is the opening sentence of the column Kempton published on April 18, 1991. Two days earlier, Kempton’s friend Homer Bigart had died at age 83. For forty-three years, Bigart worked first for The Herald Tribune and then for the New York Times. Kempton praises the Times’obituary for Bigart:
“There are scraps from what Homer Bigart wrote when he was working and from what he said when he wasn’t; and Richard Severo chose each with the care owed to fragments from a golden fleece.”
You will notice the Kempton touch. Stylistically, he was never afraid to launch a metaphor. His language was elegant, learned and complex by newspaper standards.
The abiding sin among the journalists I knew and worked with was provinciality, the conviction that our world was the world. Kempton always recognized the grander context. He knew that history is forever repeating itself, even on the individual scale. Kempton closes his column with an anecdote about covering, with Bigart, the arrival of a black family in all-white Levittown, Pa. Bigart lingered when Kempton was ready to leave. He talked at length to the elderly town clerk while Kempton waited in the car. Here’s the column’s conclusion:
“When we left at last, Homer apologized with the explanation that you might have to come back to this place and could need this sort of stuff. He would always know more than the rest of us because he could never think that he already knew enough.”
The Bigart column seems not to be available online. But while looking I found a profile of Kempton written by David Owen and published in Esquire in 1982. Kempton has often been likened to Mencken, but Owen sees another model:
“. . . I think first of Dr. Johnson. Kempton is more a creature of the eighteenth century than he is of Mencken’s, and although he is a Whig to Johnson’s Tory, the two men have much in common. Johnson used to trudge out into the streets of London to buy oysters for his cat, because he was afraid that if he left the task to a servant, the servant might come to hate the cat. It’s easy to imagine Kempton doing the same thing, except that he would probably pick up something for the servant as well. His prose style owes as much to Johnson as it does to anyone now breathing. His personality seems as inextricably bound up with New York as Johnson’s was with London. His happiness, like Johnson’s, has been built around a core of sorrow.”
[About Kempton’s sentence quoted at the top: It gives me deferred satisfaction to read it. More than thirty years ago I had an editor who used to say that our goal as journalists was to unearth “Truth with a capital `T.’” What horseshit. We’re reporters, not metaphysicians.]