A writer who makes magic with his words
December 30, 1998
By Art Carey
Roger Rosenblatt is looking out over the ocean, pointing in the direction where TWA Flight 800 went down in July 1996. The explosion, 10 miles away, shook his house, right here in the Long Island village of Quogue.
But what was really interesting, he says, was the story after the story.
``This is a beach for rich people, and for days no one went into the water,'' he says. ``It was silent homage to fellow human beings who had lost their lives, a tacit acknowledgment of our common humanity and mortality. ''
For Rosenblatt, ``the feeling is the news, how we responded to the crash is the lasting story. ''
With amazing regularity, he fashions ``thought scoops'' by observing the emotional eddies in the current of events. That's why, when I pick up Time magazine, I always begin at the back, with the essay. If it's by Roger Rosenblatt, I know I'm in for a treat.
If you haven't read him or seen him on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, you're missing something special. William Safire has praised him for ``some of the most profound and stylish writing in America today. '' UPI has called him ``a national treasure. '' To me, he's a hero.
On the downside, he's an intellectual (Harvard Ph.D., Fulbright scholar, etc.). On the upside, he's blessedly ``low church. '' He toils in the profane and quotidian vineyard of journalism (at Time since 1980, and before that at the Washington Post and the New Republic).
A bard of the mundane, he can plumb the meaning of a game of catch, the silence of men, the winning ways of the Yankees. He is not prissy, pompous or obscure. His hallmarks are clarity and precision, wit and wisdom, literary allusion and poetic metaphor, a congenial, conscientious attempt to penetrate the mystery, to find the missing piece, the telling detail that illuminates the whole.
He realizes that an essay is a waltz with an idea, and he does so with surpassing elegance. ``The only way a young woman can really be beautiful is when some element of difference, of strangeness, is present alongside her perfect unblemished features,'' he once wrote. ``The way an older woman is beautiful has nothing to do with perfect and unblemished features, but depends rather on how her mind works - on what engages her interest, on what, and whom, she loves. ''
He can write seriously, but doesn't take himself seriously. He watches goofy movies with pals like Garry Trudeau. He has a sense of humor and gladly sees through the nonsense. About celebrity auctions: ``The funny part is that all this stufflust is covered over by a sheen of hauteur, loads of English accents and names like Sotheby's and Christie's. No one ever got a catalogue from Finkelstein's or the House of Lopez. ''
Bravely, he dares to be sentimental. On his daughter's wedding: ``When you take my arm, and we begin that awkward, stately walk toward your husband-to-be, I will envy him only one thing. He will be able to see you coming toward him. He will behold you in your brightness, confidence and wonder, as you cause everyone to gasp in amazement, just as you did the day you were first presented to the world. ''
His specialty is the news of feeling, not in the touchy-feely psychobabble sense, but in the sense that the traditional questions of hard news - who? what? when? where? and why? - don't go far enough. Too often, they fail to make sense of things because they don't ask ``How did that make us feel?'' and ``How did we respond?'' and ``What does how we feel and respond say about us and our times? ''
At age 58, he has the requisite highbrow and air of Byronic distraction. His sartorial style is rumpled and tweedy, with traces of L.L. Bean country squire. His voice is deep and his laugh ready. He is friendly and gracious, quick, smart and verbal, as engaging and fun in person as he is in print.
He grew up in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan, the son of a physician. He spent his 20s in busy Cambridge. Now this city boy is in the season when he cherishes the ``adamant serenity'' of Quogue, a place that ``allows that brooding quiet to reach a level that's usable for a writer. ''
He ``broods'' for days, then writes swiftly on a legal tablet, in an easy chair by a window in the living room. He begins before dawn ``when it's absolutely quiet and still and I'm aware of my surroundings and God's grace and the privilege of being able to do this.''
``I enjoy writing because writing tells me what I think. I feel, therefore I write. What I feel is what I write, and when I write, I discover the clarity of my own thoughts. ''
Rosenblatt picks up a book from his coffee table, poems by Theodore Roethke. He opens to a favorite and runs his finger to the last verse:
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world
That, he says, is his ambition, the best any writer can hope for.
When he taught at Columbia, one of his rules was ``Write dead stories,'' by which he meant that ``stories only begin to reveal themselves when they appear to be over. ''
Similarly, the big story is the little story, or as Rosenblatt puts it, ``There's nothing more important than the small event. ''
The small event is significant for its universality, and it's just as likely to happen in Quogue, a summer resort with all the weather-shingled charm of the nearby Hamptons, minus the plutocratic pretensions.
``It's a tiny village and it's also the world,'' says Rosenblatt. ``It's all available right here - the whole range of human conduct, all the feelings and aspirations, the heartbreak, the hope, the tragedy, the valor, the honor. ''
What he admires are aristocrats of the soul, the gesture that shows decency and civility, character and class, such as Katie Couric's pitch-perfect acknowledgment of her husband's death on the Today show.
As he was dying, Lewis Thomas, the essay-writing physician and biologist, opened up to Rosenblatt. ``With the same sharp insight that we all have for acknowledging our failures,'' Thomas told him, ``we ought to recognize when we have been useful, and sometimes uniquely useful. ''
As an ``investigative moralist'' who delights, instructs and helps us see more clearly, Rosenblatt has been uniquely useful. He also exemplifies the theme of one of his recent PBS essays: steady excellence.
Such talk would embarrass him. Rosenblatt keeps his many awards and honors boxed up, out of sight. They are ``encumbrances,'' he says, impediments to living and achieving in the now, to the exquisite luxury of pure brooding.
John Kelleher, a Harvard prof and mentor, once advised Rosenblatt: ``You take what you get and do the best you can with it.'' ``Acknowledging your limitations and attempting to do better in spite of them, that's your life's work,'' says Rosenblatt.
``I'm trying to help people understand what it is to be human a little better than they did before. We're all animals. I'm just watching the animals.''