…her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations. — Julian Hanna
After the Tall Timber: Collected Essays
New York Review of Books
528 pages ($29.95)
Looking back, Renata Adler’s journalistic career and the era it spans appear almost as the stuff of dreams. Our own age, which can seem like a nonstop Gawker feed of the horrible and the miserable, stands in stark contrast to the four glorious decades captured in After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, which covers Adler’s career as a staff writer at The New Yorker and ‘serious intermittent critic’ for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The American Spectator, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. Adler covered most of the defining issues of the day, including issues that she had the uncanny sense to know would come to be age defining. Beginning with the march from Selma and the counterculture in the 1960s, Adler went on to cover Watergate in the 1970s, the resurgence of the Republican right in the 1980s, the Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, and the legal wrangles surrounding the US presidential election in 2000. But more than that, she covered these stories from the front lines: following Martin Luther King, Jr. to rallies in the South; filing a “Letter from Israel” from the Six-Day War; reporting from the war torn fledgling nation of Biafra shortly before its inevitable fall; and covering key trials, including impeachment proceedings against two presidents. As Jonathan Clarke recently pointed out, Adler’s career is unique, a one off, and moreover in the present climate her fierce independence is best viewed as a cautionary tale: “These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.”
Throughout her writing career, in fact, Adler bears witness not to a golden age but to the steady decline of serious journalism and a serious readership in America. Resistance to this perceived decline is one of the defining features of this collection, seen perhaps most famously in her attack on fellow contrarian (and former colleague) Pauline Kael. Adler’s attempt to end what she saw as Kael’s reign of “brutality and intimidation” as the longstanding house critic for The New Yorker pairs her description of journalism in decline with her struggle to counterbalance abuses of power and to check corruption and complacency in institutions of all kinds. By choosing this uphill battle, Adler necessarily courts controversy and makes herself a target for attacks. Perhaps that is why Adler, who was educated at Harvard (under I. A. Richards and Roman Jakobson), the Sorbonne (under Claude Lévi-Strauss), and Yale Law School, and who is the author of two difficult, dazzling, boundary-exploding novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), so often appears to be writing from the margins. Despite her success and centrality to contemporary American letters, Adler always works against the cultural grain. This collection divides roughly into three sections. First is the intellectual It Girl decade from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, made up entirely of New Yorker pieces; then a short middle section covering cinema; and finally what I might call—and many would no doubt disagree—the rest: covering Adler’s essays for a range of publications from the mid-seventies to the early noughties.
The early pieces in the first section are compelling for their eyewitness accounts of key historical figures and events. But on a deeper level, their power lies in the disruption of familiar historical narratives with the all-too-human: the messy and complicated reality behind even the most sacred historical moments. When MLK takes the stage in Montgomery, Alabama to rapturous applause, for example, Adler records someone muttering: “This personality cult is getting out of hand.” The opening essay, from the introduction to Adler’s first collection of New Yorker essays in 1969, sets the tone. She describes the politics of her between-the-cracks generation as progressive, empathetic, led by heroes like Hannah Arendt; yet always aloof, sceptical, cautious, and focused on the word (“we are the last custodians of language”). The second essay (“The March for Non-Violence from Selma”) exemplifies this “radical middle” approach: hopeful yet retaining a critical view. The mood on the historic march, for example, is described predictably as one of “jubilation.” But that is not all: there is also “tedium” and “inaudible speeches,” fear of attacks from local rednecks, bad food (“three tons of spaghetti” served from “garbage pails”), and fashion-conscious hipsters trivializing the meaning of the event (“Which demonstration are you going to? Which one is the best?”). The atmosphere of the march is beautifully recorded from moment to moment: the changing light, the temperature and humidity, and the shifting mood of the crowd, “at once serious and gay.” Adler conveys the feeling of the vulnerability among the marchers as they camp by the roadside in hostile territory—there are frightening rumours of “bombs and mines”—as well as the carnivalesque, proto-Woodstock atmosphere on the last day when stars like Nina Simone, Joan Baez, and Tony Bennett perform.
The diversity of the civil rights movement—black and white, north and south, urban and rural—is an underlying theme, and clueless interlopers are a constant trope. One student marcher complains to the Reverend Andrew Young, who is giving instructions on non-violent protest: ‘Man, you’ve got it all so structured.’ Another expresses a fear of Maoists, who are confused with Kenyan rebels: “Maoist. You know. From the Mau Mau.” But despite occasional indulgences in “Talk of the Town” style light humour, Adler does not spare us from shocking facts. In one oddly contemporary use of surveillance technology, white bystanders are seen taking photographs of marchers, “presumably as a warning that their faces would not be forgotten.” (Later the marchers turn the tables and begin to photograph the roadside hecklers.) Statistics are used sparingly but effectively: one county on the route, for example, is said to have “a population of fifteen thousand, eighty per cent of them blacks, not one of whom had been registered to vote” because of fear of reprisals. Actual violence is absent from the story, but there are several tense moments. At one point Adler describes a gang of crewcut local boys who jump out of their cars and surround a group of marchers, but they turn out to be menacing only in their aimlessness and ignorance.
After the report on Selma comes a series of essays that form a striking picture of the turmoil of the late sixties. On the lighter side there is the rebirth of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (“Fly Trans-Love Airways”), which in early 1967 was “practically deserted” except for “evangelical bands of elderly squares and young longhairs.” Adler reports from the scene in the guise of a hip and slightly jaded older sister: I imagined her standing among the love beads and ragged Confederate jackets in an open-neck white shirt, like the Avedon portraits. The essay ends with an erratic performance by Arthur Lee and Love that perfectly captures the time and place. But even in this seemingly light, “youth of today” piece, Adler manages to delve into the economics and polarized politics of LA, and from there to the growing polarization of America as a whole. She describes the widening “split” between “the Yahoos, on an essentially military model, occupying jobs,” and “the longhairs, on an artistic model, devising ways of spending leisure time.” (And it was ever thus.) In the next essay, “The Black Power March in Mississippi,” Adler provides an anatomy of the key players in the civil rights movement. She lists “the drones” (white marchers “with only the fuzziest comprehension of issues”), “the press” (rushing to “cover one of the last of the just wars”), “the white supremacists” (aptly described as “Stock characters out of the southern bestiary”), “the local blacks,” and finally “the leaders.” Adler downplays white fears of black violence: the only marcher advocating violent revolution is “a white college graduate, unemployed, wearing a baseball cap,” a fashionable Marxist whose propaganda is met with derision by black marchers (“I don’t know what to say to you”).
Adler is similarly dismissive of white middle-class revolutionaries when she covers the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago (“Radicalism in Debacle”). “The conference presented, from the first,” she declares, “a travesty of radical politics at work.” While the nation is gripped by “the problems of war, racism, and poverty,” the self-absorbed delegates of conference radicalism are portrayed as the least likely remedy for the nation’s ills. Part of the problem is, once again, the “persistent debasement of language”: the word “revolution,” for example, is used to express “every nuance of dissent.” As things grow darker and the decade slouches toward its heavy conclusion, Adler turns to a critical history of the National Guard in the wake of the Kent State massacre. Like many of the pieces in this first section, this essay (“But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load”) has powerful echoes for the present crisis in America. Adler repeats the findings of a damning report by the FBI: “the National Guardsmen at Kent State were not surrounded, had not run out of tear gas, had not been hit by rocks or subjected to sniper fire, and were not in any way injured when they killed four students and wounded thirteen others on May 4.”
One of the most affecting reports comes at the end of the first section. “Letter from Biafra,” a gem at the heart of this book, is a devastating story of idealistic promise and backs-to-the-wall hopelessness. The article was published in October 1969, just months before the Nigerian army crushed the secessionist movement that for three years had kept the fledgling and largely unrecognized Republic of Biafra alive. The conflict resulted in a death toll of between one and three million from war and starvation between 1967 and 1970, higher even than the war in Vietnam that overshadowed Biafra in the Western media. The forces behind the war sound eerily familiar: a war for oil, with the interests of Shell-BP defended through British arms shipments to Nigeria; the promise of a 48-hour “surgical action” that turns into years of chaos and bloodshed. While she acknowledges the complexity of issues leading to the conflict, Adler is clearly moved by her experiences with those engaged in the struggle. Many of the people she encounters on the Biafran side are intellectuals trained at British and North American universities who returned to fight for their homeland; as Adler notes, Biafra (Eastern Nigeria) was one of the most densely populated, highly developed, and highly educated regions in Africa.
In one surreal moment a young surgeon, apparently mystified by the world’s indifference at his country’s suffering, tells Adler: “We have always done well on exams.” Many of the conversations recorded in the essay are unsettlingly calm, as literary topics interweave with death and famine and life under siege. Adler describes a mood of “crazed, articulate, sometimes even irritable courtesy, in the face of an absolute desolation closing in.” One of her interlocutors is Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958), who later wrote about his country’s brief history in There Was a Country (2012). (Kurt Vonnegut also speaks to Achebe in his own heartbroken account, “Biafra: A People Betrayed”.) Near the end we catch a rare glimpse of Adler appearing in her own story. Alone in the dark, her invincibility slipping for a moment, she admits: “I was scared, not of violence … but of not being able to get out.” (This was not an irrational fear: Nigeria had shot down Red Cross and other aid planes.) But she did make it out, and like Vonnegut and a few others reported what she saw there. If there is a silver lining to the atrocity it might be found in the words of General Ojukwu, who says of returned intellectuals like himself that whereas they used to look down “on those who stayed at home,” they now felt pride in the attempt—even the failed attempt—to establish “the first viable black republic, able to compete on an equal basis with white nations of the world.” But the very threat it represented to the status quo only hastened its demise. The colonial lines of the tragedy are clearly drawn by another interviewee, who tells Adler: “The West brought us good tidings, but it wouldn’t let us expand on them. Now we are suffering this strange mercy killing at the hands of the British.”
Earlier in 1969, under less dramatic circumstances, Adler visited Cuba. Her “Three Cuban Cultural Reports (With Films Somewhere in Them)” were published on the very last day (February 11) of her yearlong stint as chief film critic at The New York Times. The position, which the still twentysomething Adler was offered despite having neither written nor read much film criticism, was to replace old guard critic Bosley Crowther, who was finally pushed out after he mounted an unfashionably fogeyish attack on Bonnie and Clyde. From the start the job was an uncomfortable fit: Adler was used to reporting on events in “Selma, Harlem, Mississippi”; she “detested” the New Journalism with its emphasis on “the personal,” which she saw as “a new variant of … yellow journalism.” So the task of giving her personal opinion on films she cared little about—“Hollywood produced scarcely any movies of any value” in 1968—was awkward at best, at worst liable to provoke an existential crisis. In contrast to long-form journalism, writing under the constant threat of deadlines felt to Alder like “catching your sleeve in a machine.” So she took the scandalous decision to return to The New Yorker, opening a rift with The Times that has never quite closed.
Film criticism—already well covered in A Year in the Dark (1970)—comes up only once more in this collection, but it is the book’s bravura performance. You have likely heard of “House Critic” (originally “The Perils of Pauline”), Adler’s infamous scalpel job on New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. It has the reputation of being a journalistic bloodbath—is it really so bad? And why does Adler have the knives out for Kael? First of all, yes, it is so bad, thrillingly bad: a watch-through-your-fingers gore fest, a thorough dismemberment of America’s then most famous film critic. The review is fascinating to witness for two reasons: Adler starts from a position of shock and disbelief—she claims that her revelation, that Kael is not in fact a great critic but the worst kind of hack, comes upon her suddenly when she tries to swallow Kael’s latest collection (When the Lights Go Down) whole. This rhetorical approach makes the description of her epiphany very convincing, as we follow her through the carefully arranged evidence. And then there is the fact that while Kael is exactly the kind of critic to write a bloody hatchet job—just as she wrote effusively about slasher films—Adler is not. She turns the hatchet on Kael, to great effect: in Adler’s hands the hatchet becomes a scalpel, and Kael’s language is dissected word by word (here Adler’s training under a master of close reading like I. A. Richards, as well as her legal training, becomes apparent). The book “is, to my surprise,” she insists, as surprised as we are, “without Kael-like exaggeration … worthless.”
As for why Adler has the knives out, Kael seems to represent all that is wrong with writers and readers in America, and ultimately what has gone wrong with America itself. Kael’s writing style, her “affectation of straightforwardness,” relies on a vulgar and limited vocabulary and employs every kind of “hyperbole, superlative, exaggeration.” The readership the book posits is not much better, being “composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews.” Worst of all, Kael—who became a film critic at The New Yorker the very same year Adler took a leave of absence to do the same job at The Times, in 1968—“has ceased to care” about films. The critic, like the one time revolutionary hero, has become a despot with a sadistic lust for power. The whole situation is, Adler tells us with a degree of understatement following her lacerating remarks, “an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic.” As for America, the example of Kael cautions us to be on our guard against the little dictator, the institution run wild, and the exchange of substantial language for the high fructose corn syrup of sensationalism.
The third section of the book includes much of the legal and political reporting for which Adler, who completed her J.D. at Yale in 1979, is so uniquely qualified. Many of Adler’s hardcore fans will no doubt consider this section the highlight; I must admit I found it an uphill climb. There were bright moments: revisiting the Starr report from 1998 was certainly more fun than it sounds, with Adler providing a deft analysis of the “utterly preposterous” six-volume report on presidential blow jobs. Other moments in this section, however, made me want to swipe. I could only muster faint enthusiasm, for example, at the prospect of a lengthy analysis of the scandal surrounding failed Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Nevertheless Adler, more than any other reporter, manages to make this material seem urgent and compelling: the fundamental theme here, she makes clear, as elsewhere in the book, is the “self-perpetuation,” the “determination to eradicate dissent” and the “commitment to a notion of infallibility” that so often marks institutional behaviour, whether it is the Office of the President, the chambers of the Supreme Court, or the film desk at The New Yorker. At the end of the book Adler finally begins to appear embattled, surrounded by powerful enemies. She has pissed off most of her peers and former colleagues at The Times, The New Yorker (which she rather prematurely declared “dead” in her book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), and elsewhere. But does she care? Not much, it seems.
In “A Court of No Appeal” (2000), Adler depicts her war with, and “institutional carpet bombing by,” The Times. “The issue,” Adler writes, “is not one book [her own] or even eight pieces [attacking her in The Gray Lady]. It is the state of the entire cultural mineshaft, with the archcensor, still in some ways the world’s greatest newspaper, advocating the most explosive gases and the cutting off of air.” At the time, the collapse of the old media establishment seemed imminent. As it happens, the present decade has seen these venerable institutions, to varying degrees, adapt and regain some of their lost power. The Atlantic looks stronger than ever; The New Yorker is still on the town, a ubiquitous presence; The Times seems to be doing all right. Yet the predicted cultural shift, of which Adler’s mineshaft canaries sang (or rather failed to sing, and fell silent), has taken place: American intellectuals today are as likely to turn to their Twitter feeds or swipe through The Guardian or listen to a Slate podcast or even leaf (yes, leaf!) through a copy of n+1 or any number of little magazines to get the latest word on the latest thing. So where does that leave us? Selma just passed its 50th anniversary, and the ever-vital Adler is now an astonishing 76. Michael Wolff, whose introduction to this volume tends toward provocative overstatement more than Adler ever has (with statements like “journalism is not a writer’s game anymore”), nevertheless argues convincingly that Adler more than anyone else “has violated the clubbiness of the literary and journalistic world.” Despite the fact that present-day writers may be unable, in practical terms, to achieve such a long and distinguished yet singularly outspoken career, her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations.
— Julian Hanna
Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.