Adieu to George Trow: Earnest Engagement, Patriotic Hauteur

Author photos are never on oath, but George W.S. Trow’s make you wonder. Trow, who died last week in Naples at 63, possessed one of the more indescribable sensibilities to adorn The New Yorker, that most sensibility-driven of magazines. He was snob, moralist, wit, cultural critic, aesthete, nostalgist, lost boy, citizen. “Wonder was the grace of the country,” the first sentence of his essay “Within the Context of No Context,” may be the most beautiful sentence he ever wrote. Trow managed to combine the café-society polish of Harold Ross’ magazine with the earnest brilliance of William Shawn’s. Over the course of four decades, he contributed casuals, comments, some fiction, many “Talk of the Town” pieces, even a poem.

Above all, there’s the pair of pieces on which his reputation rests. The two-part 1978 profile of Ahmet Ertegun is a tour de force that’s even better than its title, “Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse.” Two years later came “Within the Context of No Context,” a one-of-a-kind meditation on America falling and television rising, which is almost as good as its title. “Context” is, among many other things, surely the only jeremiad (and make no mistake, that’s the tradition it belongs to) ever to dwell at length on People magazine, the Pointer Sisters, the 1964 World’s Fair and the impossibility of now wearing a fedora without irony.

Trow had an impeccable, fedora-filled pedigree. This is where the earlier of his two author photos comes in. It appears on the dust jacket of Bullies (1980), a collection of stories; on the book version of Context (1981); and on an oddly inert novel, The City in the Mist (1984). Trow, who also wrote several plays and had two film scripts produced, could pass in that early photo for a more effete version of Dick Cavett in his who-ever-heard-of-Charlie-Rose heyday: grinning, blond, suffused with a wholly unaffected preppie enthusiasm. It was a look he came by naturally. The scion of a well-to-do publishing family, Trow grew up in the pages of a Cheever gazetteer: Greenwich, Cos Cob, Bedford. He went to Exeter, like his father. At Harvard, he was president of the Lampoon. Later, he helped found National Lampoon.

Trow’s Harvard timing could hardly have been better. The West Point class of 1915 came to be known as “the class stars fell on,” owing to the many cadets who later became generals; the Harvard class of 1965 was the one Eustace Tilly fell on. Its members included Trow, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jacob Brackman, Jonathan Schell and Wallace Shawn (who qualifies as a legacy, if not a hire). After a stint in the Coast Guard, Trow remained on staff at The New Yorker until he quit in disgust over Tina Brown’s depredations. His Times obituary quoted her arch response to his resignation: “I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.” Trow had the last laugh. Soon after Brown decamped for Talk, he was back in The New Yorker with two long pieces excerpted from what would be his final book. My Pilgrim’s Progress (1999) simultaneously sharpens, expands upon and occludes the themes of “Context.” It says a great deal about Trow’s capacity to astonish that the hero is someone as square as Ahmet Ertegun is hip: Dwight Eisenhower.

My Pilgrim’s Progress bears the other Trow author photo. He’s bald now, not so much aged as worn down. Boyish charm has given way to a well-muscled wariness. He looks far more like a truck driver than a New Yorker writer, let alone one so highly mannered. There was such rigor to Trow’s stylization that it became an almost solid thing on the page, as likely to affect content as form. He became increasingly fond of coming up with highly opaque categories, or “Big Topics,” as he calls them in Progress. A mild tendency in “Context,” this fondness for categorization verges on mania in Trow’s last book: “Big Human Interest,” “Modern Academic Vectors,” “Mainstream American Popular Artifact.” They sound like a parody of sociological jargon, except that Trow deploys them in all sincerity. Part of what makes his writing so unnerving at times is its blending of earnestness and hauteur. And the hauteur can be breathtaking. He was that rarest of things, a true American aristocrat.

Mandarin prose and mandarin pose often coincide, of course. What’s rare is their sharing the page with an abiding sense of civic virtue. That idea of patriotic engagement sets him apart from Henry James, with whom one might think Trow would neatly align. James often seemed slightly pained at being American. Trow would have fit right in as a James character, except that he would have terrified James. Even if there weren’t something forbidding about the intensity of scrutiny in Trow’s best writing, the fierceness of its intelligence, James would have been confounded by so profound an attachment to the public realm. That attachment may have been the least complicated thing about so exquisitely complicated a man—unexpected, yes, but also direct and heartfelt. Edmund Wilson once described Robert E. Lee as having belonged to “the Roman phase of the Republic.” However anachronistic, Trow belonged to it too, even if he lived in an age closer in spirit to Roman decadence. Robert E. Lee, after all, never went to Studio 54 with Diana Vreeland for Bianca Jagger’s birthday party.

America, Trow wrote in the class report for his 15th Harvard reunion, “is a glory of a country, and a glorious idea for a country, and we would be saved now by the love of it if the idea of the love of it hadn’t been strip-mined and left ugly.” Imagine that Henry Adams’ and Edith Wharton’s friendship had taken an intimate turn; Trow could have been their grandson. The dates line up nicely. So do the obsessions and the sorrows.

Mark Feeney is the author of Nixon at the Movies (University of Chicago Press). Next spring he will be Robbins Professor of Writing at Princeton.