Six books and several dozen Sports Illustrated articles into his journalistic career, George Plimpton still couldn’t type the words “participatory journalism” with a straight face. “‘Participatory journalism’—that ugly descriptive,” he writes in the first pages of Shadow Box (1977), sighing over his Underwood. Though he became nationally known as the subgenre’s paragon and the term pursued him into his obituaries, Plimpton was only a journalist in the sense that James Thurber was an illustrator and Robert Benchley a newspaper columnist. He went places, spoke to people, and wrote down his observations, but the reporting wasn’t the point. What was the point? The storytelling, the humanity, the comedy.
It was an odd match to begin with: for a writer of Plimpton’s background, journalism ranked on the literary hierarchy somewhere below light verse and pulp westerns. In George, Being George, Charles Michener, Plimpton’s editor at The New Yorker, explained:
Journalists were from a rougher background. They tended not to be Ivy League, white-shoe boys, which George was certainly the epitome of. When I came into that world, I was at Yale and people would say, “Why do you want to be a journalist? It’s sleazy. That isn’t for people like you.”
Journalism was not to be taken seriously, but comedy writing was even more of a joke. What was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, class of 1948, to do?
After two years at Cambridge, where Plimpton earned a master’s in English, he moved to Paris to run a fledgling literary quarterly, while working in secret on various novels he would later abandon; one began with a long set piece in which a fire breaks out at a society party. As contemporaries and friends—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gay Talese—began to revitalize the journalistic form, placing themselves in the middle of the story and writing with the depth, nuance, and narrative richness of novelists, Plimpton saw an opening.
In 1956 he…
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