Montana State University

At Montana State: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

March 23, 2016

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, former New York Times book editor who has worked in the field of books throughout his career, answered a few questions about books, film and the future of journalism while at MSU. Photo by Sigrid Estrada.

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, former noted New York Times book editor who has worked in the field of publishing and literature throughout his career, visited Montana State University recently.

Lehmann-Haupt became the editor for the Sunday New York Times Book Review in 1965, and from 1969 to 1995 was the senior daily book reviewer for The New York Times. In 2000 he became chief obituary writer for the Times. While on campus, Lehmann-Haupt answered a few question about his career and the current state of literary affairs.

Since 1969, you are credited with reviewing more than 4,000 books for the New York Times. What is the one book you wish you would have written? What are the top five that remain the most resonant?

I actually wrote three of the books I wished I could write--"Me and DiMaggio,” my non-fiction book about baseball; and two novels, "A Crooked Man" and "The Mad Cook of Pymatuning"--although they didn't come out quite the way I wished, or, more precisely, not as good as I wished. But that ducks your question, which I guess refers to a book by someone else I wish I had written, no? In all honesty, I can't t remember ever reading such a book. The closest I can come is wishing I could be in the world of a book, and what comes to mind is James Dickey's "Deliverance," a novel that seemed to take possession of the author, as if it had come from some part of him he was never allowed to inhabit again, to judge from all his other, rather lame action novels that try to be mini “Deliverances." I don't quite mean I wish I could have been in the world of "Deliverance," not a particularly pleasant one. But I wish I could have been possessed the way Dickey was--just once.

In addition to writing, editing and reading, you are an active teacher. What do you think is the state of the book judging from those college-aged students that you teach?

As I taught mostly writing courses, I didn't assign many books, just parts of them--mostly selections from anthologies. Given the role such selections played, I would have to say the state of the book is vitally indispensable. Unfortunately, more and more students who enroll in the Columbia Journalism School are concentrating on visual reporting. So in that relatively narrow field, the vitality of the book may be threatened, but there's a lot of space for it to thrive elsewhere.

The one book I taught to which the reaction surprised me, was Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” his “nonfiction novel” about the 1968 Pentagon Protest. The reaction of the class was shock and amazement that I would assign such a “male chauvinist pig.” I was, I admit, filling in for a feminist professor on sabbatical, but the class’s sense that Mailer was forbidden was so deep that I got the feeling that disapproval of him went beyond this particular classroom.

In any case, we forged ahead, and, as if a dam were breaking, the students were profoundly liberated by reading him to try, for better and worse, hitherto unexplored degrees of inserting themselves and their feelings into their narratives.

Is there a key to reading a book both rapidly and critically? Do you have any shortcuts you could share?

I was (unfortunately) never a quick reader, although I did learn to read books "down the middle of the page," so to speak, as a way of finding the thin book that's embedded in every fat book and trying to get out, or rather the thinner book that I could deal with in a thousand-word essay. I did, however, discover one trick for speeding up my ability to read books critically. This was to do a lot of underlining, and marginal notation based on that underlining, then to re-read the book, attending only to those notes. Somehow, for reasons I could never quite explain, that would pull the book together and allow me to see it whole in a way I hadn't the first time through, all of which helped me to see the book "critically," as it were, more quickly.

You are also an avid film goer. What is the best film you’ve seen this year?

The best film I've seen this year so far is "Tunes of Glory," which has been on my top-10 list ever since I first saw in it 1960, the year it first appeared. It's about a Scottish Highland Regiment in which a Sandhurst-trained commander (John Mills) takes over for a battlefield-promoted Major (Alec Guinness), and it's as strong today as it was more than half-a-century ago. One of Guinness’ best-ever film performances.

The best films I saw last year were "Spotlight" and "Ex Machina."

Speaking of “Spotlight,” which is about the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the sexual assault scandal by priests in the Boston Diocese, what do you predict is the future of the American newspaper?

Newspapers will survive in some form (The New York Times already has), unless the entire American population gets addicted to digital media, and lands somewhere on the Asperger's Spectrum, as the MIT scholar Sherry Turkle says may be happening.

Are you currently working on a writing project? If so, what is it?

I just finished editing a biography of the Nazi figure SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man, whom I would call the architect and managing director of the Holocaust. It's titled "The Hangman and His Wife," because much of it is based on interviews with his widow, who lived until 1985. The book is unique in that respect, as none of the other major Nazis had wives who survived or were intelligent enough to say what Lina von Osten Heydrich had to say.

Now that that book is finished, I've returned to a memoir of living in Berlin, Germany, right after World War II, when I was 12 and 13. Although my father was an interesting sort of Monuments Man, the book has turned into a family memoir, exploring how six generations of German Jews from Hamburg went about trying to escape being Jewish.

Then I plan to pick out 12 or 18 of my book reviews, tell the stories behind each one, and hope to end up with memoir of writing for The Times for some 51 years.

What is your secret to writing a memorable obituary? Do you have a favorite among the obituaries you have written?

The secret of a good obit is to find a subject who has done something unusual and then to describe vividly how she or he went about doing it. Among my favorites were ones of John Updike, because I finally explained to myself what made him distinctive, Roger Williams Straus Jr. (of the publishing house Farrar Straus & Giroux) because he was at once such a good publisher and such an outrageous scoundrel, and the Bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, because he was so off my beaten track, although I don't think I had space to include how Scruggs and his brother learned musical timing, by starting to play together in front of the house, then marching around the house in opposite directions, to see if they were still together when they met in front of the house again.

This reminds me that I wish I had been the music reviewer when William F. Buckley Jr. played a harpsichord sonata with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. The man who reviewed that performance wrote, "Mr. Buckley and the orchestra finished almost but not quite at the same time."

When you tire of reading and writing, what do you do to recharge?

I like to build things with my hands, like ship models or mobiles in the style of Alexander Calder. Or I garden, or watercolor. Or I go fishing.

What are the five books that you would recommend that every college student read?

The Old and New Testaments

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (There's a single volume of his plays)

"Ulysses," by James Joyce

The Oxford Book of English Poetry

“The Armies of the Night," by Norman Mailer

 

Glen Chamberlain, (406) 994-5258, glen.chamberlain@msu.montana.edu