Even a casual glance at bookshelves in my home, as with bookshelves of people like me around the country, would reveal multiple volumes by David Halberstam. The sheer breadth of his interests and places that he reported from in his five decades plus as a major figure in American journalism is staggering -- Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Japan, the baseball diamond, 9-11. Any of us who write non-fiction narratives today write in his shadow. Simply put: The genre was defined by a small number of writers who came out of a certain time and place in America. I'm thinking of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, John Hersey, and others. David Halberstam would make the Top Ten list of these writers, and he would make it in nearly every decade he wrote. His profile was enormous. His voice (even his speaking voice) distinctive. His moral authority tremendous. His stature statuesque, in all the good senses of that word.
Sure, in recent years, as one traveled in certain circles in New York, one could hear stories of Halberstam submitting pieces that were too long, and too cumbersome, to be printed without serious editing. I, for one, began to notice how long some of the books he wrote actually were, which is often a sign of a writer who refused to be edited or cut down. Some of his recent work may have been more admired than read.
But I also began to notice how brilliant his topic choices were, how he switched deftly between long, serious narratives about major public policy issues and shorter, more tightly focused portraits of a certain moment in sport. (He was apparently reporting this week on the 1958 football title game between the Giants and Colts.) I have no doubt some of that was done for commercial reasons, and the desire to stay current. I once heard him say in an interview about mentoring a young writer, John Burnham Schwartz, who was his neighbor and later a novelist about Japan, that he would call Schwartz early in the morning and announce he had been working for two hours and wondering how much writing his junior by 30 years had done. Few writers who had achieved his stature would continue to put in that much effort at that stage in their careers.
I remember thinking at the time that this story reflected a certain neediness on Halberstam's part, but thinking back on it now, I think it represents something else. An understanding of the privilege that any of us who get to write books for a living feel, or at least should feel. David Halberstam was at the nexus of America's intersection with the world for over five decades. (A new book, about the Korean War, is scheduled to be published this fall.) He wrote books that will help define that period for the next hundred years. And even into his 70's, he viewed that role as a rare honor, one given to him by a combination of determination, perspective, dedication, the ability to put the world into context, and the willingness of others to listen to his stories. His life was about the triumph of stories -- and the power of those stories to remake the world. That he lived through some of the most tumultuous stories of the last half century then died in a car accident after sharing some of those stories with future tellers at a journalism school hardly seems like a fitting ending. But it reminds those of us who admire his legacy that the greatest gift of all is sitting down and starting at the beginning.