Calvin Trillin's Message from my Father

His personal writing emerged accidentally

Calvin Trillin: "Had my father read Fitzgerald, he might have decided I should go to Princeton."
  • Calvin Trillin: "Had my father read Fitzgerald, he might have decided I should go to Princeton."

Author: Calvin Trillin was born in 1935, in Kansas City, Missouri, to a grocer and restaurateur father — Abe — and housewife mother — Edyth. He graduated from the Kansas City schools and then in 1957 from Yale University. Mr. Trillin was a Time magazine reporter for three years. He joined the New Yorker in 1963 and remains on staff there. From 1968 to 1975, he wrote the weekly column “Uncivil Liberties” for the Nation. He now writes a weekly column for Time and a weekly poem for the Nation. He is author of 19 books, including the recent bestseller Remembering Denny. Married for over 30 years to Alice Stewart, the couple are parents to two daughters.

Messages from My Father; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; $18; 144 pages

Type: Nonfiction, memoir Time: 1900-present

Place: St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri

Trillin’s mini-biography of his late father is the happiest memoir in a season of memoirs that focus on unhappy families. Russian immigrant Abe Trillin decided early that his son Calvin would become an all-American boy. Abe Trillin had for Calvin a “Grand Plan,” a plan that included Yale. “I think my father dreamed of my going to Yale,” Trillin writes, “partly because that’s where he believed the ideal American boy would go. It is all right there in a heroic novel he had read as a boy in St. Joseph — Stover at Yale.

Remembering Denny, a memoir that examines the suicide of one of Mr. Trillin’s most promising Yale classmates, and this newest book seem the first time Mr. Trillin has written so intimately about his personal life. When we talked not long ago, I asked Mr. Trillin if this were an accurate perception on my part.

“I think so,” he said. “I think that this more personal writing emerged accidentally. When my friend Denny died and I decided to write about it, there didn’t seem to be any other way to write about it other than in a personal way.

“My father snuck into the Denny book. I didn’t have any intention of writing about him there. He had met Denny, and I knew I was going to write about him sitting next to Denny at the Class Day. So, he sort of emerged in the book. Jonathan Galassi, my editor, said, ‘Why don’t you try writing about your father?’ So this book really did grow out of the Denny book.”

Did it seem odd to him, to be writing now so personally about himself?

“Well, I don’t think I would have done it years ago.”

I agreed. “It does go against the Calvin Trillin persona.”

“That’s true,” said Mr. Trillin. “The serious New Yorker pieces have usually been in the third person. The food and travel writing have me in it, but as you say, as a sort of persona. So, yes, it did seem odd.

“I didn’t actually think of it as a problem. I thought the problem in writing about my father was that I spent relatively little time with him. Through most of my childhood he was in the grocery business, which meant he wasn’t home a lot. And I left home after high school. So I thought I didn’t have enough to write about. I gave it up at one point, and then I realized I was writing about immigrants and feelings about America that my father had in a sort of corny but very pure way. And that got me started again.

“One of the things that made me think I wouldn’t have enough to write also became one of the things I was writing about. He seemed to be an ordinary man and yet he wasn’t an ordinary man. He had an extraordinary will and he had a vision of how things would turn out and he had a strong character and that turned out to be interesting to me to write about.”

Did his father really decide he would send his son to Yale because of Stover at Yale?

“Yes. On the other hand, if he hadn’t seen that book, he might have been fixated on Harvard. Or, had he read Fitzgerald, he might have decided I should go to Princeton. But certainly it was that book he had on his mind."

To have such plans for your child, I said.

“Yes, it’s amazing. I didn’t know anybody else’s father who hadn’t been to college who thought his son was going to Yale. I certainly grew up in an era and among people who had ambitions for their children. Everybody my parents knew had been poor at one point and from an immigrant background and almost all of them, I am sure, had feelings that their children should have opportunities that they didn’t have. But that’s different than having a focused plan as my father did.”

And you followed that plan.

“I did. I find that eerie. I think his message to me that I was a special case, as I say in the book, is a terribly important but difficult thing for parents to get across. That message overpowered any reluctance I had to do what he wanted me to do. I think this seeped through to me. So that this idea that I had for a while, that I would go to the University of Missouri with my pals, I began to see probably wasn’t the right idea. I came close to going to Princeton. But then I thought, ‘He wants me to go to Yale.’

“You don’t think of yourself as following someone’s plan until you look back and think, ‘This is what he had in mind.’ Which I don’t find disturbing at all, that I did.”

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