Chapter 96: On Greatness, Part II
I had not understood before raising the question of greatness that I had, if not opened a can of worms, then sparked an existential crisis. For that I apologize. But still…
The responses to last week’s newsletter suggest that the question of greatness is not simply about the how, but also about the why. As in: why would I want to embark on a life where success is hardly guaranteed and the costs can be great?
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I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past week, and my thinking has been shaped by three people: Robert Caro, author; Joe Montana, quarterback; and Lorraine Shapiro, teacher. But first, I wanted to share with you some of the comments about greatness that followed last week’s Writerland.
-”It's an especially nagging topic as a young person in journalism because the pathway to success, let alone greatness, in the field today is so different than it used to be and definitely not as straightforward as it was for many of our predecessors. ‘Hustle culture’ is going out of style for my generation, which I think a lot of WSJ-type columnists assume means we don't want to work hard, but I don't see it as that at all. We still dream of achieving greatness. It's more that we're questioning why someone should have to make major quality of life sacrifices for the sake of their career, when ‘greatness,’ as some of your respondents smartly point out, is partly due to unforeseeable luck, circumstance, and privilege.”
-”I think about the last scene of the movie Inside Llewyn Davis where Llewyn goes to the club and sees Bob Dylan for the first time and realizes that although his entire life has been built around music, he will never be anything more than a journeyman. He's a good early 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer, but that's it. His songs sound like the Village in 1962. Dylan's sound like they're out of time. They could have come from 1862 or yesterday (well, if you're hearing them for the first time). I also think that Dylan, like every other great artist, is confident in his own personal weirdness and it's persuasive enough to change the way everyone else sees the world.”
-”Do you have to be successful to be great or great to be successful? I also think this brings up those healthy discussions of what greatness means in the context of: is greatness something that can be self-determined or does it have to be recognized by someone else in order to be ‘great’? For instance to be a truly great skier do you have to be recognized by the Olympics as an Olympic gold medalist skier or as a world champion skier? Or if skiing was something that brought you immense joy and personal value and so you skied everyday you could in the winter and attended local ski meets and started a local ski club for friends and others to try skiing, would that make you a great skier?”
So, as to the aforementioned author, quarterback, and teacher, each of whom achieved a level of greatness; however you’d want to define it, they did it. Three more unlikely people you’d never find. And yet, in their lives and work there is a common thread that I have come to believe the great ones share.
I was reacquainted with Caro and Montana this weekend. Caro is the subject of a new documentary, Turn Every Page, which explores his relationship with his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb has edited, by his rough count, between 600 and 700 books, and among them are works by such titans as Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, John LeCarre, and Salman Rushdie. He is wise, erudite, self-aware, and, by his own admission, a spectacularly fast reader. He is also, given the nature of his work, the person tasked with making the work brought to him better, more readable, more saleable.
First, however, comes the work, and that is where Caro comes in. Caro has written four books – the first, “The Power Broker”, about Robert Moses, who for decades ruled over all that rose and fell in New York. The other four are about Lyndon Johnson, who was arguably the most interesting, flawed, powerful, vain, insecure, crude, and world-changing figure in 20th century American politics.
Caro is 87. He is working on his fifth and final volume on Johnson. And yes, you wonder: can he finish in time? I need not elaborate on what I mean by time. The documentary’s title comes from advice Caro got early on from his editor at Newsday, when he was made an investigative reporter. To say that Caro took this advice to heart is an understatement of Biblical proportions. Watching Caro work you get the impression he has turned, or plans to turn every page ever written by, about and to Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States.
By now the stories of Caro’s work ethic have become the stuff of legend – the three years spent in the Texas Hill Country because he, proud New Yorker, would otherwise have not truly understood Johnson. The documentary captures it well; we see Caro and his researcher and wife, Ina, standing in front of the Great Wall of Papers at the Johnson Library, and even as he appreciates the daunting task still before them, it’s clear he cannot wait to get back to it. In fact, he responded to an interviewer’s when-will-we-see-Volume-Five-question by saying “you can’t speed up the research.”
And therein, in that seemingly tossed off answer, I began to gain a deeper understanding not only of Robert Caro, but of greatness. It’s not about being unable to rush the research. It’s about not wanting to.
The following day I came across a terrific profile of Joe Montana, who before the rise of Tom Brady, was generally considered the greatest quarterback ever. Montana won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers; Brady, who swears he has now retired, won seven. Advantage Brady. This upsets Montana.
Joe Montana is 66 years old. He last played football in 1994 and you get the impression that he wishes he could play tomorrow and the day after. Much as Montana has built a good life after football – a happy marriage, four adult children who actually like vacationing with their parents, and now grandchildren – there is something missing, a void that, even with the enduring physical pain from all those years of playing, transcends a play, a pass, a completion, a game.
Which brings me to Lorraine Shapiro. I have mentioned her before; she was my mother. She was also, I believe, the greatest teacher I have ever seen. After she died, the Provost at my university - a scholar of international renown – approached my brother and me and said, Your mother was my first grade teacher in 1950. She is the best teacher I ever had. That was her second year of teaching. She only got better. I’ve heard similar comments over the years, and having watched her with little kids – she only liked to teach first graders because, she would say in a New York accent so thick it rivals Caro’s, “they know how to play” – I was dazzled and humbled.
My mother stopped teaching when she was 78. I will tell you that I am not alone among my colleagues in emerging from a three-hour class with graduate students so drained that I want only to lay on the floor. My mother spent every working day with five and six-year-olds, from 8:30 to 3:30, and then came home and worked on her planbook. The only sick day she ever took was when my dad was diagnosed with cancer; he recovered; she was back in class the next day.
I do not believe that a day passed in the last ten years of my mother’s life when she did not miss the classroom, achingly. She tried to find substitutes; in fact, on the day she suffered the stroke that would send her into the steep downward spiral that ended in her death six months later, she was on her way to a nearby hospital where she worked in the pediatric oncology center, teaching parents how to read to their children. She had to use a walker, her one concession to the broken hip she had suffered a few years earlier. After she died I mentioned to my father that in all the many pictures he took of her after she retired, she was never smiling.
When I think about the void in my mother’s life after she left the classroom I think of Robert Caro telling an interviewer that the research will take time, and Joe Montana saying at his Hall of Fame induction speech: "I feel like I’m in my grave in my coffin, alive, and they’re putting, throwing dirt on me, and I can feel it, and I’m trying to get out."
I have turned a lot of pages, including those of Robert Moses. And while I was never much of an athlete, let alone a Hall of Fame quarterback, I have been teaching for 30 years and will admit that I can see a point when I will want to stop and do other things.
For the great ones, I have come to believe, there really are no other things. There is, at the core of who they are and what propels them – making them turn yet another page or pick themselves up after being thrown to the ground, or insisting on coming to work every single day for 45 years – the one thing, the place where they not so much want to be, but where they must be.
For those of us who have had our moments in that world, moments we enjoyed but from which we were fine stepping away, there is a sense of awe, wonder, and head-shaking respect for the ones who stay on, searching for greatness.
It is in the search that they are most alive.
Word came the other day that longtime book editor Jack Macrae had died at 91. Jack, a lovely man, was the editor of my first book and I carry with me the very wise advice he offered after I had handed in the manuscript. It was a book about Japan and in the classic, self-pitying way that afflicts so many young writers, I lamented that I had not “said anything new.”
To which Jack, a wise editor, replied, “No one ever says anything new. The only thing that’s new is the metaphor.”
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Excellent work! So glad to have discovered your page. Keep doing what you're doing.