I was trembling with excitement. It was some minutes before I could muster up enough courage to read the fateful message:
“Yes, come for tea at four on Wednesday the seventeenth
That was all. No frills, no nonsense. Just the terse words scrawled on a post card, signed only with the initials known to —lovers the world over, “N. G.”That was all— but it was enough to set my heart thumping wildly . . . etc.,
The foregoing is the accepted beginning of what might be called The Pilgrimage Article, which goes on to tell in relentless detail how its author finally achieved the lifelong ambition of actually meeting N. G.
It is immaterial whether N. G., or the author, for that matter, is a man or a woman. Men gush just as earnestly as women in recounting the interview with N. G. Neither does it make any difference what N. G. is — or was — so famous for. N. G. could be famous for any old thing: painting, medicine, fiction, the harpsichord, or whatever. Picasso? Baruch? Houdini? E. H. Sothern? One will make just as serviceable an N. G. as the next.
It is not that the author is interested in the specialty of any one of these celebrities. No, the author is primarily a name-dropper, who will go to any lengths to be able to say, “As Tom Wolfe used to say to me when we were in New York together . . .” or “I don’t know Ted Williams well, but I did have dinner with him one night.” The dinner on that occasion happened to wind up the Nirvana Community Fund Drive, and there were about four hundred others there to hear Ted Williams’ speech, but what’s the harm?
As it all works out, N. G. comes off very thinly in The Pilgrimage Article, which proves to be much more about the author than about N. G. It will be noted that the opening word of The Pilgrimage Article is the first-person-singular pronoun, and everything that follows seems to stem not from the luckless N. G. but from the sapience, the perseverance, and the all-round excellence of the author. We find that N. G. becomes simply the invisible thread on which the author’s pearls of subjectivity are strung. So:
“I shall never forget my sense of mounting eagerness as I prepared for the interview . . .”
The preparations themselves are usually good for a few pages of copy. The author goes through a fair dither over what to wear, deciding finally “with much trepidation” on what almost anyone would reasonably wear to a four o’clock tea, presumably after rejecting court dress, hunting pink, a bathing suit, or whatever else the anxiety of the moment might have suggested. But there is no faltering, no turning away from the commitment: “N. G.’s card had said four o’clock, but I was ready and waiting to start long before the appointed hour.”
Along about here in The Pilgrimage Article the author tucks in what she obviously believes is a double coup: She will disarm the reader with a becoming show of modesty and at the same time put across a resounding statement of her own credentials. It goes like this:
“Of course I had no reason to believe that N. G. had ever heard of me. I was not a professional writer, although several stories of mine had appeared in my high school magazine, The Nirvanian. My other activities, although sufficient to fill my scrapbook with press clippings, could hardly have come to N, G.’s attention. Even so, as a former secretary of the Nirvana Heights Book Club and a journalism major from Berserk U., I felt that I had some qualifications as an interviewer. My position in Burdock’s, which is, after all, the largest department store between Cleveland and Cincinnati, has naturally brought me into contact with all sorts of people, and my trouble was not so much shyness as determination to make the most of this extraordinary chance . . .”
Let us assume for the case in point that N. G. is a male, a nonobjective painter whose method consists of splashing his colors over a frame of lightly stretched cheesecloth; what drips through is caught on a sheet of aluminum which N. G. is moving rapidly back and forth under the cheesecloth. (In his latest stage N. G. is adding a rotary motion to the dripping process with quite astonishing results.) This in itself is nothing unusual, hardly a reason for N. G. to have become world famous, or any more famous than other painters who work with fly swatters, egg beaters, slingshots, or comparable novelties. What does make N. G. as widely known — and the author never does come to appreciate it — is the simple fact that N. G. is a born showman and a tireless publicity hound. He will talk on any subject to anyone with a pencil and a bit of paper.
The interview, reasonably enough, goes very smoothly indeed. “I soon realized that my fears had been groundless. From the moment N. G. opened his door for me I felt perfectly at home, and I was soon chatting with this great artist as if we had known each other for years. He was affability itself, and although he had never been in Nirvana he was greatly impressed by what I told him about our Art Institute and the part that Burdock’s plays in the cultural life of the community . . .”
Affability? Why, N. G. even pressed upon the interviewer a souvenir fragment of cheesecloth, which has been carried around and displayed ever since.
The author of The Pilgrimage Articles comes home in a daze of self satisfaction and with enough notes for a book, let alone an article. The story of tea with N. G. runs to about 8000 words. If that infernal conspiracy by the big slicks against all but “name” writers continues, as seems likely in this case, the author can be fairly sure of getting the piece eventually into the Nirvana Times Gazette. The Burdock store’s account is not, after all, something to be sneezed at.