This was one discovery about narrative we found with this book. But the other had to do with the structure of the book—a structure that was formed as the book assembled itself, with all the disparate pieces coming together in a way that no one could have predicted or even intended. And that had to do with turning points and affinities.
It’s a matter of something that happened that left the landscape changed, even if it was only the landscape of a single person, a landscape that sooner or later would become part of the map carried in the minds of countless other people. When something that seemed impossible the day before something happened seemed inevitable the day after it happened.
Again, it’s a matter of placing a bet. When did Lincoln really become Lincoln? The day he brought the borrowed book back, or the night before, when he read it? The day he faced Douglas on the stage and knew he had him beaten and loved it? Or the day he realized, as he wrote to himself in the middle of the Civil War, that he had started something he was powerless to control or even end?
It was at our editorial board meeting that we fixed these turning points. Then, the authors who were asked to write the essays had to turn on those dimes or argue against them.
So Andrea Most’s entry on Arthur Miller, for example, is situated not in 1949, when “Death of a Salesman,” the main subject of the essay, was first produced, but in 1932, when at 16, in the ditch of the Depression, Miller decided to go into show business, and auditioned to become a radio singer in the Brill Building. Robert Polito’s entry on F. O. Matthiessen is placed not in 1941, when he published “American Renaissance,” but in 1924, when he met his life-long soul mate and fellow Skull and Bones member Russell Cheney, who led him to accept his homosexuality and turned Mattheissen toward Whitman as the heart of his life’s work. Jeffrey Ferguson’s essay in Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt” is dated not 1922, when the book was published, but 1925, when the U. S. Chamber of Commerce declared that the word “Babbitt” had become “common coin,” that it belonged to everyone, and it was time for good and decent people to take the word back from Lewis’s satire of the American businessman and turn it into a mark of honor and greatness.
Out of the notion of constructing a narrative around turning points came the notion of collapsing two into one: double essays. It was a bet on affinities. It was a matter of rubbing two sticks together—and not from the same trees—to see if a fire might start, and what it might burn.
Part 3-5 to come ...