The Perils of Centrism: On Renata Adler’s “After the Tall Timber”

After the birth of the celebrity journalist — first on television, later in print — Renata Adler wrote in the introduction to her 2001 essay collection Canaries in the Mineshaft, “There still existed what Mary McCarthy, in another context, called ‘the last of the tall timber.’ But the tall timber in journalism is largely gone — replaced, as in many fields, by the phenomenon of celebrity.” Surveying the territory, glancing at the Twitter feed of any given New York City writer or journalist, one wonders whether the tall timber has been replaced with the shrubbery of microcelebrity, or if the whole terrain is a parking lot. Either way, it’s an exercise one can repeat with Adler’s nonfiction prose: simply hyperextend one of her observations, a cold fact or a burning quip, and you’ll find yourself amid present concerns. What does Adler make, if anything, of today’s editorial personalities? The next line: “And gradually, in print journalism, the celebrity of the reporter began to overtake and then to undermine the reliability of the pieces.”

The title of Adler’s exhaustive new collection of nonfiction prose, After the Tall Timber, comes from the above passage. And it would seem to suggest, perhaps inadvertently, that the pieces themselves are unreliable — coming as they do “after the tall timber,” or after the mass harvesting of reliable journalism. Intended or not, the mere suggestion that Adler’s longform nonfiction might be suspect, coming as it did from lawyered-up, militantly fact checked magazines and newspapers, will raise ears. If there is one thing Adler isn’t, it’s dishonest. That is to say that rumors of her remorseless conviction are confirmed, everywhere, in the tenor of her prose.

It’s not Adler’s honesty that is called into question by the collection’s title. It’s her constancy. And, also: Adler’s constancy is difficult to trace because her career resembles, in many respects, that of Kate Bush’s in music. She produced, voluminously and brilliantly — then she vanished, not into obscurity but absence. Or a mix of both. And then she was rediscovered. It was less than two years ago that the Renataissance kicked off in New York City with the publication of her fictions, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, sui generis works that paradoxically bear a family resemblance to the novels and collections of her one-time drinking buddy, Donald Barthelme.

But as sharp as Barthelme’s nonfiction was, it was never this sharp or forthright or comprehensive. The Adler we’re presented with in After the Tall Timber combines the unforgiving critic of “The Perils of Pauline,” her fearsome and just takedown of Pauline Kael — perhaps the most reasonably over-cited such piece in recent memory — with the observational breadth, if not the tendency toward transcendence, of James Agee. One wishes that many of her longform narrative pieces, especially those from her collection Toward a Radical Middle, were lengthened into versions of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I know of no postwar American essay, for example, that does more with quotation than “The March for Non-Violence From Selma”:

“The way I see this march,” said a young man from SNCC, “is as a march from the religious to the secular — from the chapel to the statehouse. For too long now, the Southern Negro’s only refuge has been the church. That’s why he prefers these SCLC ministers to the SNCC cats. But we’re going to change all that.”

“I’m worried, though, about the Maoists,” said the student.

“What do you mean by that, exactly?” asked another marcher.

“A Maoist. You know. From the Mau Mau.”

Range, consistency, probably the best cosmopolitan prose of her era: so what is unreliable about Adler’s nonfiction? The collection is at its worst when Adler leans on that selfsame cosmopolitanism as an ethic. Even today, there is a tendency on the part of this posturing to gentrify the intelligences of those seen as political opponents, especially radicals and poor rural whites, and to wax diagnostic about one’s generation. (You’ll find the same problem today, too, in a thousand Adlerite wordly-wise think pieces about who or what is a millennial.) Thankfully this position abates as the book moves forward, but it’s particularly nasty in the 1969 introduction to Toward a Radical Middle. This essay misunderstands black radicalism — indeed, any and all radicalism — willfully and almost by force. And its reddest flag is reserved for the word “redneck,” which appears several times: first as a characterization of conservatism, then, bafflingly, as a qualification of radicalism:

Ours has not been a great thirty years for intellectuals. We saw, and survived, anti-intellectualism in this country, but we also saw a generation of intellectuals — Stalinist at the time of Stalin, quiescent in the McCarthy years, mesmerized by the power and beauty of the Kennedys, nerveless in the face of the radical redneck young — always weak, always somehow lifeless and wavering in the face of force and violence. But through it all we saw something infinitely fragile and viable in the System, in its accommodations with radicals, rednecks, soldiers, blacks, thinkers, visionaries, lunatics, the ordinary getting better.

If this first strikes you as overwhelmingly modern, don’t convert just yet. It’s also the same line of reasoning used by complicit centrists like Jon Stewart, whose sanity rallies and magic middle-isms now seem childish to everyone — or should do.

That Adler in this mode has swapped politics with cosmopolitanism is not lost on the writer of the book’s preface, Michael Wolff — except that Wolff foolishly endorses the exchange. “Among the reasons, I believe, that [Adler] seems so fierce, impolite, unexpected, even outré,” Wolff writes, “is that she has no politics — or no official politics.” Against Wolff, I would point out that Adler appears to have rejected her own gesture toward the radical middle. In a 2013 interview with The Believer, Adler writes:

Long ago, I published a book of some of my New Yorker reporting pieces, and I wrote an introduction about our generation. I look at it now, and boy, was I wrong. Not so wrong, but pretty wrong. And pretty confident, in this sort of bravado way.

Whether Adler presently endorses a political position I do not know. Nevertheless, within this observation there is a willingness to struggle with her own ambivalence and a commitment to the power of the utterance — a readiness to be right or wrong — that animates nearly all of her nonfiction prose. Now that Adler has been rediscovered all the way around, let’s hope to find more of this combativeness — less magic middle-ism, less cosmopolitan knowingness — in the contemporary prose that claims her influence.