A Conversation with David Samuels

The New York Times called David Samuels “an elite narrative journalist, a master at teasing out the social and moral implications of the smallest small talk.” Currently, Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and writes for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He sat down with The New Journal at Theresa’s Polish Restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, where he lives with his two children.

Ben Mueller: You start a recent piece from The Atlantic about Kanye West with a conversation with Barack Obama, and you end a piece about the Bronx Zoo in Harper’s Magazine with a conversation with Michael Bloomberg. What about politicians interests you?

David Samuels: What interests me isn’t politicians per se, although I would say that “politician” and “musician” are the two categories of celebrated public figure that I feel some sense of personal intimacy with. I can read their psyches to some extent through the public record, whereas the question of what goes on inside the mind of Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford is a total mystery to me.

I think if you look both on the line and structural levels, one of the effects I’m trying to model in my writing is a habit of making connections between kinds of discourse that are usually separate. And so if you break down good sentences of mine you’ll find some high falutin’ turn of phrase and some slang-y turn of phrase. The energy comes from the way that they are jammed together, this sort of elevator effect where you’re in the basement and then you go to the eighty-fifth floor and you do that in seven words, which is generally how I amuse myself.

BM: You write on a sort of rotation between Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. How does that approach inform your work?

DS: At this point in my career, I’m like some kind of elevated freelance category. I have affiliations with each of these places. I have a business card, I’m on the masthead of Harper’s, but no one gives me a regular pay-check.  When I was younger that was a source of sorrow, especially for my parents. It was tough paying the rent.

Every good magazine, to whatever extent, has a house voice and a house style. There’s always the joke about The New Yorker typeface giving everyone ten extra IQ points, and there’s a sense in which that’s true. The typeface is a visual shorthand for decades and decades of very specific things that people have learned to do with voice and story form. You, as the lucky writer, inherit all that stuff, gratis. It’s like having a guitar with a special effects kit, and you get to plug all those cool effects into your own guitar. At this point these places have all become like different instruments that are available to me. Do I want to play the guitar? What kind of guitar? Do I want to play the violin?

Without entirely meaning to, I ended up with some real mastery of this very specific form, long-form American magazine articles. It ain’t Shakespeare’s plays or the 19th century novel. On the other hand it’s the only indigenous American literary form, and it strikes me as having no more or no less absolute literary potential than the sestina, say.

BM: You recently wrote an article for Harper’s about a strange undercurrent of racism – a sort of desire to eliminate the messiness of the real world – at the Bronx Zoo. Talk about your process with that piece.

DS: If there’s a value in my work that I’m trying to get across to other people, it’s about an integration of thinking and feeling where feeling comes first. It’s my huge beef with the education that I got and the kinds of conversations that people I spend a lot of my normal life with often have about the world. Part of that is about the value of not knowing everything in advance, and not thinking that you do.  Part of that is the willingness and ability to be emotionally and intellectually open without feeling superior. I think that those values are largely absent from the culture of smart people who went to good universities who pretend to know all this stuff they actually have very limited real experience of.

That sense of entitlement to the experience of others has always rubbed me the wrong way, in part because I’m not a person who has a lot of confidence in my knowledge of things I haven’t seen or felt. The inherent assumption that I belonged to a common milieu with the people I went to school with, was the source of a lot of pain and anger for me in the course of my own Ivy League education and afterwards, because I never actually felt like I belonged, or like I wanted to belong. I think I’ve found a relatively sophisticated way to express that hurt and that anger, but that is still the underlying animus of my work.  So I have always trusted to a process of serendipity when I choose subjects.

With the zoo piece, I was going through a rough time in my life. I felt my marriage come apart, and I had two children who I loved very much. One of the ways I dealt with this was to take my son to the zoo. It was a big strange park with tigers and giraffes in the middle of the Bronx, and it was a form of escape that I could share with my child. But there’s something weird about looking at all these animals in cages. Why do I want to do that? What am I really showing him about the world, and about me? What is this communication about and how creepy is it that I’m doing this? I didn’t understand it.  I just had these emotions about it. I knew I wanted to spend more time at the zoo.

BM: What finally led you to see the weirdness in the zoo?

DS: I was sitting in the zoo library, which took about three months for them to get me access to for reasons I didn’t understand. The second or third day, I noticed this creepy oil portrait of a handsome looking man with a mustache peering at me from between bookshelves. I went to the librarian and was like, ‘Who is that?’ He was like, ‘It’s some old guy.’ The way he was describing it seemed torqued to make it sound as uninteresting as possible. His name was Madison Grant. I discovered that he was the leading racist of early 20th-century America and the sort of godfather of eugenics and immigration restrictions and laws against miscegenation. He was the creator of the zoo. He ran it for 40 years. Suddenly I was like ‘Oh, the Bronx Zoo was founded by one of the more evil people to live in 20th century America.’ Actually his work at the zoo became the foundation of his later theories, which in turn inspired Hitler to write Mein Kampf and serve as the basis for this “Nordic interpretation of history.” He was also deeply involved with the German racist scientists who ended up setting up Auschwitz. Suddenly I realized that there was something very dark that was woven into the history and conception of this place.

Madison Grant was also the man who started the campaign to save the wetlands and save endangered species in America. Nazis were quite ardent conservationists as well – and none of that is entirely accidental. Does it discredit the idea of conservation and mean that we should drill for oil in every national forest? No. But does it tell us that there is something troubled and quite troubling that’s located in the foundation of the way conservationists think and feel about the world and their fellow humans on this planet? Well yeah. It took a long time to find that. All I had to go on was what I felt and the fact that I wasn’t willing to allow my purely rational faculties to shut off what I was actually feeling in that place.

BM: At a moment when the green movement is being celebrated in increasingly ardent ways, there is a weird strand in it that depends on shutting out parts of the world.

DS: One of the tremendously sad emotional and intellectual realizations that I had was that there is no such thing as nature insofar as nature is a historically-bound concept. Nature is dead. The debate over how intensively we’re going to cultivate different pieces of property for different kinds of purposes is important, but it’s about choices being made for human purposes. We’re entering a human-centered planetary epoch.  It’s a phenomenon of geological importance, no less totalizing in its effect than the ice age. Everything on the planet is now subject or subservient to human purposes.

To the extent that I’ve had contacts with really dedicated, ideologically consistent environmentalists, there’s a point in our conversations when I realize that a precondition for the world they deeply want to live in is the elimination of billions of humans from the planet. They can imagine the process will happen as part of a natural population collapse, but what if it doesn’t? Forced sterilization would at least be one way of controlling the noxious effects of the population on the planet. What if forced sterilization doesn’t work the way you want it to? Well, mass starvation would produce the same effect. So you realize how people like Madison Grant got to the place that they got. You realize the boundary between these horrible thoughts and more acceptable, even beneficent-seeming thoughts is not as great as people would like to imagine.

BM: How do you feel about the state of magazine journalism today?

DS: There’s a phrase I read somewhere, “The catastrophe has already happened.” If you feel the resonance of that phrase, it’s an instruction in some ways about how to experience certain kinds of anxiety and fear. It’s one thing to spend a lot of time defending yourself against something that you imagine is going to happen. It’s a completely different emotional posture to believe the worst already did happen. So I believe the catastrophe has already happened. The magazine world I entered almost 20 years ago was a rich, commercially-viable world. For a reasonably broad audience of people it was a fun way to spend two hours in the afternoon. That world is gone. The Washington Post hires 26-year-old bloggers to fill the pages that were filled by reporters who had bureaus in Nairobi that were paid for by their newspapers. That entire substructure has now been blown up.

And yet in some ways I feel more optimistic about the form. Now that I don’t feel attached to something that’s already gone I feel that somewhere there’s going to be a marriage of the technology and the form that may be better in its mix of creative potential and audience and money. Long-form non-fiction, or literary journalism, is going to continue to be a vital American form. It’s been a vital American form for 150 years, and it’s already survived a number of technological shifts. Each time one of these shifts has happened the form has become more robust.

BM: You come from an orthodox Jewish background. How does that background affect your observations of American culture?

DS: The Jewishness of my work is inherent in the posture I take and in my choices of subjects. I’m the first American in my family. I have the intensity of interest in American life of a typical first-generation immigrant. It’s like Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. He’s as Jewish a writer as there is, and yet he writes this great baseball novel that doesn’t have anything overtly Jewish in it at all. In some sense, the intensity of his imagination of The Natural depended on his feeling that the thing that he was imagining was radically other what he was – something marvelous and strange and threatening. I think that a similar sense of distance and identification characterizes all my writing about America. Barack Obama’s not me; Mitt Romney’s not me; Kanye West’s not me. I find emotional resonances in all my subjects, but there’s a distance there that comes from the fact that I’m situated elsewhere. When I think of myself in the larger sweep of some historical continuity, I think of myself as a writer first, and I think of myself as a Jew.