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A P R I L 1 9 9 9IT was good to see Tracy Kidder in the office the other day -- good to see him back in the office. A couple of long memories here can recall the days when he virtually lived with us, at the magazine's old headquarters on Arlington Street. Kidder published all his early journalism in The Atlantic, and though never an employee, he often occupied an office, working longer hours (including some notable all-nighters) than many on the staff. "When I came knocking on The Atlantic's door," he remembers, "I was very young and it was very old. I remember the pictures on the wall of all the worthies who had served the magazine, their names like a syllabus for a course in American literature. I went back to school at The Atlantic, and it's not much of an exaggeration to say that I learned to write there."
"Small-Town Cop," this month's cover article, takes us to the western Massachusetts town of Northampton (pop. 30,000). Kidder has made a genre out of microcosmic America, and most of his microcosms have been considerably smaller than this one. In The Soul of a New Machine (1981) he reported on a team of computer engineers; in House (1985) he confined himself almost entirely to the construction of a private home. In 1993 he published Old Friends, which movingly described the friendship between two residents of a nursing home. Kidder has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, and various other literary honors.
Northampton posed new challenges. "When I began," he says, "I thought the canvas small enough that I could cover all of it, but thirty thousand is a large number of souls. Writing about a town turned out to be the most daunting task I've encountered as a writer. I like to think it's a story about civilization, the shared sense of values and instincts, the unspoken rules that hold a place together."
Tom O'Connor, the subject of "Small-Town Cop," stands at the center of Kidder's forthcoming book, Home Town. O'Connor has been civilization's most visible defender in Northampton. He also represents one of the great tensions in small-town life: the desire to give oneself to a beguiling, intensely local place, and the contrary urge to move on to the larger world.
As for Tracy Kidder, he moves on continually, and the prospects of our ever
again having him as an officemate seem slim -- but it is a pleasure to welcome
him back to these pages.
Photograph by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 283, No. 4; page 4.