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The Columnist

The Library of America gives Jimmy Breslin the treatment.

Norman Mailer, Left, and Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin: Essential Writings, ed. Dan Barry, Library of America

Every publication—every good publication, anyway—is a bit like a baseball team. You’ve got your writers of various sorts, editorialists, book reviewers, and so on. These are your players. Foremost are the reporters, invariably badly dressed, usually gregarious, usually late on deadlines, rarely your great literary stylists but they shake out the interesting details of things. You’ve got your editors, usually better (or at least more formally) dressed, retiring or disagreeable, prone to drinking, the real type-A guys who don’t take crap. These are your managers, the guys who put together a line and guide the ship of state and answer for whatever boneheaded stuff the reporters do, of which there’s usually plenty. You’ve got your business guys, the ones who sit in the dark and sweat you about your reimbursements and know who is working for which senator and that sort of thing—the front office, which is the same kind of guy in baseball and I suppose every other kind of industry. 


There in the mix on the writing side you’ve got columnists. “Columnist,” when you pry off the decades of accumulated connotations, pretty much just means “space-filler.” The columnist is there to fill a column of text. He is to do this on some regular schedule. You hope (I speak as an editor here) that he’s going to be insightful or moving or funny; at any rate, you hope he’s going to be correct and non-libelous. But the bare, base-model minimum is this, that he be on time and to length. You’ve got to fill your inches, and you’ve got to fill them on time.  

Columnists tend to produce a mix of color and reporting—the tighter the deadline and the longer the column, the more color there tends to be. In this respect, they are more, irrespective of their publication’s format, akin to newsmagazine writers. What Otto Friedrich wrote about the newsmagazines among which he spent so many fruitful years tends to hold for the newspaper columnist as well: “The news, what happened that week, may be told in the beginning, the middle, or the end; for the purpose is not to throw information at the reader but to seduce him into reading the whole story, and into accepting the dramatic (and often political) point being made.”

Like many other party tricks—gurning, smoke rings, telling a decent joke—this sounds like an easy order to fill but proves harder in execution. Not everyone is cut out for columnizing, at least not indefinitely. Whittaker Chambers, unprompted, quit his column at National Review after two years; he gave William F. Buckley no explanation, but it seems he just felt he had nothing more to say on that schedule. A lot of columnists work for a couple years that way and move on to better things.

Yet there are those who thrive in the genre—can’t get enough of it. H.L. Mencken was a weekly columnist for most of his adult life, and a daily columnist for much of it; the now sadly neglected Ring Lardner likewise. On the other side of the pond, G.K. Chesterton wrote a daily column for the Illustrated London News for years. These examples underline a point: Your warhorse columnist of the first rank tends to become best known as a stylist. There are only so many worthwhile insights the human intelligence can produce in a month, let alone a week; you need something to carry you through the between times. Here is danger: It is a short slide from a characteristic style to self-parody, to being a hack. To return to baseball, you don’t want to repeat the same pitches too often, or they’ll stop working. You see this tendency in the late career of Baltimore’s own divine, who has a tendency to repeat the hyperboles a little too close together for the context of a book. In a column, where they might have been separated by a week or two, such repetitions would not have rankled.

Lardner illustrates a quirk of the American columnist tradition, namely that our leading column men tend to be sportswriters. Sports lend themselves to columns for the same reason that columns become exercises in style: You never have to worry about what bare facts you’re going to write about. Somebody beat somebody somewhere by some runs or points. The sportswriter, let alone the sports columnist, has sadly declined; nobody needs to read the paper for results anymore. Now, sportswriting means summarizing a tweet from Adam Schefter summarizing something some lickspittle agent’s assistant summarized for him from a private meeting summarizing contract negotiations between teams and athletes.


Of the latter-day practitioners of the column, the late Jimmy Breslin stands out. From 1960 until his death in 2017, Breslin wrote columns for multiple outlets, particularly the Long Island Newsday and the New York Daily News. He wrote sports, but he also wrote a lot of other stuff. The son of a working mother from Jamaica, Queens, he was the voice for the white ethnic millets of New York—canny, wry, tough, but also sentimental, even self-righteous. He looked the part: tubby, black Irish, a face that looked like it was laughing even when it wasn’t, the living mascot of a million beat cops, bus drivers, and sandhogs. He embodied the New York political sensibility—broadly liberal, distrustful of the Interests, a politics built around “the little man.” One of Breslin’s first big breaks was interviewing the gravedigger for JFK. But he was not what you would call woke. In the ’90s, when a Korean-American Newsday reporter accused him of sexism, he called her a “slant-eyed” “yellow cur” and took to The Howard Stern Show to expand on his thoughts and feelings about Koreans. Newsday suspended him until an apology was extracted.

Breslin was a fixture. My grandparents (Brooklynese) would have called him a character (“He’s a real charehctah”). He ran for city council in conjunction with Norman Mailer’s mayoral bid; their slogan was “Vote the Rascals In.” Yet Breslin was unlike Mailer personally. He remained married to his first wife until her death, and then his second, a New York councilwoman, until his own. This, also, is very Irish-from-Queens. Progressive politics has nothing to do with the right and wrong in your own life. Michael Moore, although a Michigander, has a little of this working-class moral austerity, which is becoming rarer and rarer, particularly in Democratic circles.

He wrote the whole time. A new Library of America collection, Essential Writings, gathers the highlights of a career, including two books—How the Good Guys Finally Won, about the Nixon impeachment, and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Guttierez, about the death of an illegal immigrant construction worker—and many, many columns. 

There are two ways of writing American: chewing your cigar and holding your cigar. (Can you guess how the editorial We are oriented as we type these words?) Breslin is at his best when he’s chewing his cigar. From a column on the reporting about Mickey Mantle’s death: “The nurse resented every word of what she had read about the death of Mickey Mantle. These cheap sobbing uninformed Pekinese of the Press had hurt her patients.” On the 1962 Mets: “Basically, the trouble with the Mets is the way they play baseball.”

From a column on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (which perfectly summarizes every American Catholic’s feelings back in the early ’00s): “I don’t want to be a bishop anymore because the bishops of America have given the title such a bad name.” Later: “I cannot understand why, today, right now, Mansion Murphy of Rockville Centre dares to remain on church grounds after all he has done to place children in jeopardy. Nor can I fathom the reason why Bishop Thomas Daily was still in his residence in Brooklyn this morning. Both bishops belong in the city dump.”

It’s when he puts the cigar down that the self-righteous, almost puritanical tone tends to come through; here you can see the beginnings of the heavy-duty whining of the “personal essay” of the ’00s and ’10s. In a review of a Lardner story collection, Breslin decides to make it all about Watergate and the Nixon impeachment (Lardner’s son was one of the Hollywood Ten and went to jail for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee): “Ring Lardner went out into a place which proclaimed itself as America, but in 1901 it was a place for men on their way to making billions. The land was being stolen or scarred, the people manipulated and discarded and the Rockefellers, Goulds, Astors sawed and chewed their way through all the rules of life. Their dishonesty set a tone for the nation, spread a stain on its people, which maybe we haven’t been able to change yet.”

Yet at Breslin’s best there’s the liberal ability to see both sides, the complications of human persons—such as his profile of Big Mama Nunziata, the Gallo crime family’s matriarch, or his comments on a 1964 race riot:

The colored people, all of them, even the leaders, acted like small children yesterday. They have a deep, serious, legitimate, immediate case for themselves. A 15-year-old boy who weighed only 100 pounds was shot to death by an off-duty police lieutenant last Thursday. The case is being investigated. It has inflamed Harlem. The young kids, semi-illiterate most of them, who follow Malcolm X and other dangerous rabble rousers, used this to start a riot. They did not, these people milling from 125th to 133d Sts., last night, represent all of Harlem. They represented the part of Harlem that couldn’t wait for trouble with the white police. But they stood on street corners and hoped for trouble and when it came and the police hit them, the leaders promptly screamed “Police brutality.”

Police brutality? Sure, there was brutality last night. Terrible, sickening brutality. But this was a mess, an absolute, incredible mess, and if you were on the street with the bottles coming down and who the hell knows what was going to come from the rooftops, there was only one thing to do. Go after these crazy bums on the street corners and knock their heads open and send them home with blood pouring all over them. The crowd was uncontrollable. They laughed when Bayard Rustin took a microphone and pleaded with them to go. They jeered and spit at policemen. They wanted everything they got last night.

Breslin wrote and wrote and wrote. A lot of it was pretty good. He was dubbed a “deadline artist,” which is not a bad title. Perhaps he’s best regarded as an obituarist—for a type of liberal who is gone, and for a New York that is gone.

In a 1963 boxing profile, he writes about a bar in the Bronx:

Once, in the Irish neighborhoods, you had one of these places every couple of doorways. But now there are only faint traces of Irish neighborhoods left and this kind of a bar is rare. It is, Bimstein was saying over his beer, a shame.

It is, isn’t it?