George Plimpton is one of my many literary heroes, and I admire his personality very much. I wish I could have met him before he died. I am thrilled that there’s an oral biography about his life (it came out last year), and I finally got a chance to read it last month.
An oral biography is a fun format. It’s different from a traditional biography because it focuses on other people’s thoughts, opinions and memories of the subject.
It’s not edited or arranged into any continuously flowing format. Numerous people are interviewed (in this case 374, 200 of which made it into the book), and quotes and passages are selected from their interviews and then arranged into a book. George, Being George is arranged loosely chronologically into different stages of his life.
The result is fascinating because you’re not getting just a biographer’s view of their subject. You’re getting the direct opinions and memories of many different people who knew the subject well. Some remember him fondly, others not so much. Some people’s memories contradict other people’s.
It’s fitting that that format works so well for George Plimpton, because he did so much for the form himself. He worked on several oral biographies during his career, the most famous of which is Edie. I have his oral biography of Truman Capote, and it’s very interesting.
Here are some of my favorite parts of George, Being George:
“George talked about his family background endlessly. The whole family, his mother especially, had an extraordinary knowledge of the glories of their past generations. As his wife, I heard all the stories many times. One story George loved was “Pull up your bowels, sir!” which is what General Adelbert Ames, “the Boy General,” used to say when reviewing the men of the 20th Maine, maybe at Gettysburg when they drove back Pickett’s Charge. It was George’s way of saying, “Get a grip!” -Sarah Dudley Plimpton, page 9
“George himself was a big part of the appeal of a job at The Paris Review, George as a model of how to live. Most adults, I thought, had a fixed idea of how things ought to be. George was willing to be surprised and delighted by whatever life presented him with from one moment to the next. It might be a remark someone had made to him, the sight of a beautiful girl, a story he’d just heard, or a person he’d just met, even his own responses to things – his own irritation at something, for example. “Golly!” he would cry, or, “Good heavens!” or, “Great Scott!”; people were amazed at the antique purity of his expletives, but what was really amazing was the freshness and openness of the guy who uttered them. Life came at him in little packets of wondrousness. How many times in George’s day did he exclaim, “Marvelous!” and mean it? Certainly more than anyone I knew. -David Michaelis, page 311
“When I was managing editor, I just didn’t have any organizational ability. Several other people said, “Let me show you how you can organize things.” But I think the only organizational tip George ever gave me was “You know, William Pène du Bois has all these wonderful cans in which he keeps his different-colored pencils.” -Fayette Hickox, page 313
“There was always a sense of astonished admiration in George. He was astonished by everything. He would often say, “Could you believe” something. “Could you believe that!” There was a note of incredulity. “How remarkable! How astonishing! I couldn’t believe it!” After which his astonishment would often give way to admiration. George was the greatest, most effective communicator of infectious admiration I’ve ever known.” -Charles Michener, page 373
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