Jefferson's Moose -- and Other Stories

Foote's goodbye to Smithsonian colleagues at his retirement, January 22, 1999


I HAVE LEFT A FEW OTHER PLACES with a certain amount of affection on both sides. Each time I am to be the main culprit at a gathering of this kind, I get an urge to say something gloomy and memorable. The only thing that comes to mind on this occasion, though, is a line from King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither.

A better way to proceed, I've learned, is the one usually suggested by my wife, who is a lot more sensible than I am and has more or less cheerfully endured decades of being married to me. “Why don't you just thank them all, and say goodbye.” I hereby do that with gratitude and affection.

Memory is our only lifelong possession and I expect my memory of this magazine will be some kind of nostalgic freeze frame like the ones I still carry from the old (the real) LIFE magazine (I left it so I could write about books down at TIME) and from TIME, (which I left in the 80s to come down here). Something like a vision out of Sleeping Beauty's palace -- everyone and everything arrested in place, with even the flies frozen in mid air. Don Moser at his desk dreaming of the memorable moment when a peregrine falcon fell in love with his hat. Eric Ruffin genially presiding over the magazine's famously efficient hi tech machinery.  Suzanne Crawford, one hand on the pulse of Dow Jones, the other slashing away at offending solecisms that feckless editors keep sending her way.

Up on the second floor the assembled picture department is making miniscule last minute re-re-re-jiggerings of layout, just enough to be sure that the editors will have to cut 24 more lines and rework all the pull quotes.  Across the way, Jack Wiley, crouched protectively over the classiest prose we have -- his monthly column -- fends off the advances of a fact checker. From here I can't quite make out who it might be.

Up on the third floor, B.P. Lieberman and A. McLean are rifling the Internet with their browsers. Jim Doherty, surrounded by layouts of God's creatures, great and small, seems about to dive head first into his typewriter. Bruce Hathaway concocts a witty new monologue for his phone message machine. Diane Bolz is being thrust bodily out of her office by rebellious files. Kathy Burke sits cross-legged on the floor, conducting a seminar for the stacks of children's books piled around her. Floating above the building, like a wispy cloud or a figure in a Chagall painting, is Adele Conover, crying out, via a comic strip blurb, that the long extinct Carolina parakeet is alive and well in Arkansas.

That's only a bare sketch, of course. You can fill things in yourself as you go along. People drift in and out at the next blink I may get a glimpse of Bill Burns or Ted Park. The one absolutely indelible figure in my picture, I know, will be Judy Smith, unfailingly kind and helpful, and such a pleasure to deal with that you feel better just knowing she is in the building.

I worked for years on weeklies. But even monthly magazines are messy and demanding. It is thus they become a home away from home. Magazine goodbyes are therefore tricky. You always like to think that you will be able to revisit the castle, any time, and find it as before. But Peter Pan had it right -- or was it Thomas Wolfe? You can't go home again. The upside is that when you do find your Mom's window finally shut you may get to have new adventures with Wendy and the Lost Boys.

I find I can't say goodbye without mentioning a couple of other things and owning up to a shameful admission. In my defense it can be said that at various times in my life I have tried honest work. This started as a summer schoolboy in upstate New York (The Marines had just landed on Guadalcanal) where I helped the Bureau of biological Survey conduct a trout census. (Interested students may see me after class). The next summer I picked crops with black migrant workers. An aircraft carrier off Okinawa I can't quite claim as work; I wasn't a pilot.  Writing reviews, of course, can be a lot of work, if you take it seriously as we did at TIME, and especially if you hue to the first two duties of criticism as laid down by I.A. Richards at Harvard. "What is the first duty of a critic?" Richards would ask his class. Some dummy would answer "to criticize?" "Not so" Richards replied. "The first duty of a critic is to understand what the writer is trying to say. The second duty: never beat a cat for being the wrong sort of dog."   But eventually I wrote a lot of reviews and a couple of books, ran writing courses at Yale and Stanford, was briefly a foreign correspondent in places like Cairo and Budapest. Once, at a shooting for LIFE of Michael Todd's Peep Show I got to hold the Cat Girl's tail. (The cat girl was Lily Saint Cyr. Her tail was long and full and kept falling into configurations displeasing to photographer Philippe Halsman).

The truth is, though, that for nearly thirty years, I've mostly made my living as an editor.

And just what is an editor? As a first witness let's start with Henry Adams who briefly and brilliantly edited “The North American Review.” An editor, Adams famously wrote, is “ a helpless drudge whose successes, if he makes any, belong to his writers.” And he goes on: “Vulgarly speaking, it was a dog's life when it did not succeed and little better when it did.” And that's the upside. Listen to another definition, typed in capital letters by a splendid writer (and fly fisherman) named Paul O'Neill and years ago stapled to a copy desk at TIME Incorporated: “An editor,” Paul wrote, “is a personage who rides uphill through the jungle on the back of a writer, picking bananas and shooting parakeets along the way.” And there is my late mother, who almost to the end would suddenly ask: “Timothy. Are you still correcting papers?” Then she had a way of adding: “Never mind, in fifty years we'll all be dead.”

There is a lot to be said for all the above views. And as a sinful editor who has in his time persecuted many pieces of prose (for their own good, of course!) and is now about to become a writer again, I may not be entirely disinterested in pointing it out.

Freelance writers are what magazines cannot live without. They work alone, and take all the risks. Knights of the empty page, they have to start from scratch on a blank sheet and create a semblance of linear order from spaghetti of notes and recollections. It is a hundred times harder to make that first run, however badly, than it is to edit it afterwards, however skillfully. But while a piece of writing is being poked and pinched along inside the belly of a magazine, it is easy for an editor to feel ungrateful, to think of it as his, and the magazine's, creation.

Still, in saying goodbye to editing, I hope for good, I feel obliged to offer a few traditional words in defense of past sins. One is simply that it is the story that matters. Another is that an editor is someone whose main job is to help a writer tell the story. A third is my own special -- if you will Clintonian -- sense, of what the word “editing” means. And wouldn't you know, I borrowed it from a writer, Gore Vidal.  When Vidal was asked what making his first really big money as a novelist meant to him, he said it had nothing to do with private limos, or fancy villas in Ischia. It meant (this in the days before computers), he told the interviewer, that at last he could afford as many freshly typed drafts as he wanted. “In a way,” he said, “ I find that as a writer I have little to say, but I have a great deal to add.”

George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, used to say that he hoped all the animals he hadn't eaten would lead him into heaven. As a carnivore all I have to cling to is the hope that more than a hundred stories, offered as evidence of industry and sound politically incorrect intentions, may do the trick with St. Peter. Almost all are popular history. Their collective aim, at least in my mind, was to create bridgeheads in the bright kingdom of the past, where readers might go ashore, and perhaps head down the coast, linking with others, and so gradually acquire a sense of history and chronology, the very thing that we are told most Americans now neither have nor care about. The stories had an attitude -- mostly mine -- in that they aimed to present past men and actions free both from old fashioned heroic hype and the new dismissive and patronizing “presentism” -- misjudging yesterday by the standards of today -- that snuffs out any spark of empathy or understanding of what it was like to be there. To make you see that things now taken for granted might have happened very differently but for the resolute acts of individuals. Laid end to end -- as I would love to see done in a free paperback adjunct for schools and colleges -- they cover considerable of ground.

One technique often employed was to smuggle history into the reader's affection on the back of anecdote. What the late Otto Friedrich and I came to think of as “the Jefferson's Moose theory of popular history” back in 1976 when we were working on a special issue of TIME put together as if the magazine had actually existed when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. The anecdote in question has to do with Jefferson's time in Paris when he was piqued at the arrogant xenophobia of the famous French Zoologist Buffon. Despite Jefferson's assertions, Buffon flatly refused to believe that there was such an animal as a moose. It might be a mythic beast, he admitted, but more likely was simply the product of Yankee boasting.

Jefferson wrote Madison, as he always did when he needed help. Madison wrote General John Sullivan. Sullivan had a moose shot and shipped to Paris. The trip took several months; there was no refrigeration. When the carcass arrived Jefferson had it loaded on a cart and personally accompanied it across Paris, to lay at Buffon's door. Doubtless he said “Monsieur Buffon, voilà un moose de l'Amérique du Nord.” Or words to that effect. Jefferson has not been having a good year, but it is hard not to admire his enterprise on that occasion -- or forget the story.

To smuggle anecdotes into the magazine you sometimes need to wait for an appropriate story, doing a lot of what Peter DeVries once described as prepartee. Not to be confused with repartee. As DeVries practiced it, prepartee involves waiting and waiting with a good line on the tip of your tongue until, at last you get a conversational opening. Example: you wait until a woman seated next to you at dinner says, “I always wonder why Dempsey was called “the King of the Heavyweights?” And then, quick as a flash you say, “Because he had such a divine right.”

Sometimes it's a long wait, which in the case of Dempsey and the lady may be just as well. But sometimes it's worth it. The latest issue of Smithsonian has an illustration and some text about the millennial year with a metaphorical expression by H.J. Muller about how short a time man has been on earth compared to the first life forms that appeared here. I waited fifty years for a chance to use it.

It is pretty well known that Smithsonian Magazine was a publishing miracle almost from the start, a mass audience publication on wildly diverse subjects launched at precisely the moment when everybody on Madison Avenue swore that the day of the general topic mass magazine was over. It flourished and flourished, making millions of friends and hundreds of millions of dollars for the Smithsonian Institution. It still does. But in the meantime television has pretty well turned journalism into entertainment, and the zeitgeist, or whatever it is that set in after the Sixties, has inclined entertainment more and more toward celebrity gossip, sex and scandal.

What seems to be a marked falling off of what used to be called culture, a loss of civility and decline in general knowledge, has helped destroy, or deform or diminish many a publication. For anyone who knew the old LIFE, leafing through the various incarnations of the new LIFE is a bit like seeing your mother drunk. The TIME magazine I left reached millions of readers, made money and still let you write about the likes of Jung, Nabokov, Faulkner, Matthew Arnold, Thelonius Monk, Spengler and Toynbee. To judge by TIME today, the only way to survive and appeal to youth, is to sprinkle the front end of the book with a clutter of typographical tidbits and sound bites, the snap, crackle and pop of post–modern snippetry.

The Smithsonian is the only mass magazine I know that still does long, solidly written, beautifully illustrated stories about art and history and advanced science, not to mention all kinds of other stuff. It still goes to great pains to check its facts. It eschews hot topics. It doesn't yell and scream and use four-letter words or trade on sex and salacious gossip. Being such a sedate product should be the kiss of death. But readers still love Smithsonian. It is a miracle that the magazine has a two million circulation and that the Ad Sales folk still manage to sell ads to twenty-something media buyers, making a lot of money for the Institution. In fact, whether you know it or not, you guys have all become some kind of 20th century culture heros, simply by manning a cultural outpost with standards from which many others have fallen back.

Meanwhile the Castle appears to be on the point of turning the magazine's publishing future over to a commercial team, exactly the same kind of worldly Madison Avenue types who 25 years ago said it would never fly.

One reason I came here was that I had seen what happens when the main editorial mission of two great national magazines gets undercut by changing culture and falling ad revenue. Everybody has read H.L. Menken's line:” Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Few know much about the care and feeding of a good magazine. There always has to be someone with the clout and the sense to say there are some things we can't do, even if you think it will make more money. Think again. Henry Luce regularly did that. He ran magazines aimed at doing two things, informing people (by being interesting and accurate and thus doing the Republic some good,) and making money. At TIME Inc. for a long time, nobody ever lost sight of either. But Luce owned the joint, more or less. And then he died.

When I came down here to Washington I figured that if push came to shove, the Smithsonian Magazine, which is part of the outreach mission of the Institution would always have somebody around wise enough and powerful enough to make those judgment calls. Let's hope that is the case.