Remembering Janet Malcolm and the America She Captured

I started reading Janet Malcolm the year I arrived in the United States. Meeting his job was like stepping out of ignorance – revealing and more than a little humiliating. At 23, I was embarrassed that I hadn’t heard from her before. While the most cited parts of The journalist and the murderer sounded vaguely familiar, it was only in the same way that anything in the right place felt recognizable. Before Malcolm, I was like one of the subjects of his stories, fatally lacking in self-awareness and quick to judge, despite continually revealing how much they know or want to know anything.

Since then, I think of the country that Janet Malcolm, who died yesterday at 86, described. It wasn’t quite where I had moved; it was, on the surface, much more attractive. The people in his stories are “nice” and dress neatly. They live in carefully appointed, strangely revealing houses; their offices are rarely more ostentatious. They eat unpretentious food. She shows a cautious appreciation of the plain and unpretentious throughout her work, and in unmistakable American style, from her 1963 poem “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House,” which opens: “This Shaker House is neat and low / and everything is made just that way. It is only logical that 50 years later, she is scrutinizing the most beige of beiges in her famous Eileen Fisher profile.

It’s a healthy sort of America, with a part of the “reluctant elegance,” as the poem says, and the solidity of the postwar years. It’s almost calming to step into the world of a book or profile of Malcolm, and start meeting the well-groomed, no-frills characters: The Art Forum editor, Ingrid Sischy, a woman “with short, dark wavy hair”, wears “the most sober clothes”; artist Sherrie Levine in the same multi-part piece is a “nice, manless woman”, also with “dark wavy hair”. In The journalist and the murderer, an uncompromising juror, Lucille Dillon, is also “nice” – a “self-contained sixty-year-old woman” wearing “white pants, a white overcoat and white sneakers.” There are lovely Malcolm touches in the apparent simplicity of these women’s styling. What could be more seductive than the spread of “bread and cheese and Granny Smith apples” that Malcolm notes on Levine’s table? Or the ‘room service breakfast of avocado salad and sherbet’ she shares with Dillon – not just a meal but a window to a specific world at a specific time (take me there! ), its modest delicacies.

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