What do you believe?

Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.

Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."

Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.

Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?

Calvin Trillin: My personal philosophy would be not to have a personal philosophy. No. I think the short answer is no, or at least I never thought about it. And I guess if you haven’t thought about it, you don’t have one.

Question: Do religion and faith inform your worldview?

Calvin Trillin: No not really. I’m being sort of, you know, culture . . . religious culture and things, but not . . . not whether I’m straight with God.

Question: What is the measure of a good life?

Calvin Trillin: Well that’s pretty close to personal philosophy isn’t it? Well my father had very good advice about that. It’s the only advice I can ever remember his giving me. He was not a heart-to-heart sort of father. He was a good father, but not a “Come in my study and we’re gonna have a heart-to-heart.” I actually never met a father like that, so maybe they . . . only in the movies. But my father used to say, “You might as well be a mensch.” A mensch is a German word and also Yiddish word. In German it means “human being”, and in Yiddish it means “upright person” in big things and small things.

So he not only . . . A mensch would not only come to the aid of a friend even if at his peril; but also if he borrowed your apartment would leave it slightly nicer than he found it. And I was always impressed about the way my father put it. My father grew up in St. John, Missouri and spoke very much like Harry Truman even though he was born in the Ukraine and he came as an infant. And he used phrases like, “I haven’t had so much fun since the hogs ate little sister” and stuff like that. But he said . . . He always said, “You might as well be a mensch.” I mean it was never, you know, “Our family is . . . Our honor depends on it” or anything like that. It was . . . He sort of considered the alternatives, and at the end decided you might as well be a mensch. It’s a sort of a Midwestern way to phrase it.

 September 5, 2007


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