Bard of the Common Man, Jimmy Breslin, a Deadline Artist, Gets the Library of America Treatment

The scribe who never earned a college degree now shares a shelf with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James.

Michael Ochs, archives/Getty Images
Jimmy Breslin and actor/director Joseph Brooks on the set of the 1978 film 'If Ever I see You Again.' Michael Ochs, archives/Getty Images

‘Jimmy Breslin: Essential Writings’
Edited by Dan Barry
Library of America, 734 Pages

For decades, the words of the journalist Jimmy Breslin could be found printed on newspaper pages, those seen folded on subway cars and dampened at the edge of a local bar. A new collection of his work, though, from the Library of America, is set in 10-point ITC Galliard, derived from the 16th century Granjon. The pages, lightweight opaque, “will not turn yellow or brittle with age.” It’s a glow up for the gritty Breslin. 

The Library of America aims to preserve our country’s “best and most significant writing.” This volume is edited by a veteran reporter of the New York Times, Dan Barry. Breslin himself, of Irish stock from Jamaica, Queens, largely wrote for the Herald Tribune, the Daily News, and Newsday. When he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1986, it was for “columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens.” His punchy sentences and barfly eloquence sang alike of saints and sinners. 

Take Breslin’s most famous column, “It’s an Honor.” It is a profile of the day President Kennedy was interred from the perspective of the man who buried him. His name was Clifton Pollard, an equipment operator and a “slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh.” Breslin writes that “one of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy” was “a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”

Breslin was just as adept at farce as tragedy. “Worst Baseball Team Ever,” an eloquent fugue of futility, focuses on the 1962 Mets, who finished a ghastly 40-120. Breslin understands that any team can lose, but ineptitude at this scale was a wonder. He writes that the team is “bad for many reasons, one of which is that they do not have good players,” and explains that the “trouble with the Mets is the way they play baseball.”

Breslin’s brilliance is to, on the sly, pivot an essay on bumbling ballplayers to a poignant portrait of their manager, Casey Stengel, a lion in winter. The column begins at the Chase Hotel at St. Louis, where the “bartender was falling asleep, and the only sound in the hotel was the whine of a vacuum cleaner in the lobby. Casey Stengel banged his last empty glass of the evening on the red-tiled bartop.” The Yankee legend pauses and tells a cleaner, “I’m shell-shocked.”

Breslin not only wrote about New York — he hoped to jump to the first rank of its politics. In 1969 he ran for the presidency of the city council, alongside the writer Norman Mailer, who hoped to be mayor. Their ticket was called “New York City: the 51st State,” and advocated for the five boroughs to secede from New York State. One campaign slogan went: “The Other Guys Are the Joke.” The pair finished second to last, with 5 percent of the vote.

The Sun spoke to the volume’s editor, Dan Barry, himself a veteran columnist. Mr. Barry reflected that Breslin “set the standard for literary journalism” because nobody else “could quite capture what he conjured.” His style, which eschewed adverbs and deployed simple sentences, manages to be both conversational and eloquent. “In order to breathe he had to write,” Mr. Barry explained. This bard of Queens Boulevard knew his Dickens and Dostoyevsky. 

Breslin’s politics were, Mr. Barry allows, “on the left side of the spectrum,” and pieces in this volume skewer a real estate developer named Donald Trump and Mayor Giuliani. He also, though, took on Governor Carey, a Democrat, whom he dubbed “Society Carey” for his persistent patronage of Elaine’s. Breslin was a devout Catholic who was, Mr. Barry explains, “more comfortable calling cops than being at a literary salon.”  

Breslin’s piece on Stengel ends with the reflection that during his salad days in pinstripes, Stengel’s “doubletalk was pleasant, but it had a bit of show business lacquer to it.” Now, the “old, amazing Stengel” magic surfaces only occasionally. The kicker, though, is the reflection that “for over 50 years now, Casey Stengel has been getting into taxis in front of old saloons across the street from a ballpark. … He’ll be back next year. God help him.”

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